By Carson Swick | UConn Journalism | Dec. 2, 2022
STORRS, Conn. — Forty-seven percent students of color; 26.5% of students from ethnic backgrounds “traditionally underrepresented” in higher education — Black, Hispanic, Hawiian/Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaskan native students. These figures represent the students admitted into the University of Connecticut Class of 2026, the most diverse in the school’s history. But as early as just next school year, UConn’s demographics could look much different.
On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case, which was brought to challenge the race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and several other schools. With the Court’s 6–3 conservative majority, observers and scholars alike are expecting these “affirmative action” policies to be struck down next spring, which could impose new barriers to admission for minority students across the country.
At UConn, race-conscious admissions have been in practice for decades. As defined by the university, affirmative action is “a process in which employers identify problem areas in the employment of ‘protected class members,’ set goals and take positive steps to ensure equal employment opportunities” for those so-called protected class members. This is done in pursuit of diversity, which UConn defines as “a broad concept that values all people equally, regardless of their differences.”
However, the Supreme Court’s conservatives thrust affirmative action programs on the chopping block by picking apart the latter term during the oral arguments of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. Justice Samuel Alito indicated he felt that “diversity” had little concrete definition, while Justice Clarence Thomas said he had “no clue what diversity means” in the context of the case.
While use of the term has puzzled some justices, leaders of two UConn cultural centers — the African American Cultural Center (AACC) and the Asian American Cultural Center (AsAAC) — offer more concrete interpretations of diversity.
“Diversity, to me, means people with different identities, different experiences in terms of race, gender [and] socioeconomic status,” said Velda Alfred-Abney, a Saint Lucian immigrant who serves as the AAAC’s interim assistant director of operations. “Two students that look alike could definitely be diverse. Everybody in a sense is different — as different as our fingerprints.” “Each individual [views] diversity through a different lens, based on the experience of how you’ve been socialized,” added merz lim, associate director of the AsAAC.
lim, who lowercases his name to emphasize his role as one Filipino man within the larger, collective Asian American community, questioned the motives of the case’s plaintiff, Edward Blum.
Blum, who is white, founded Students For Fair Admissions in 2014 with the clear purpose of challenging race-conscious college admissions. lim implied that Blum’s failure in the 2016 Fisher v. University of Texas case — in which the Supreme Court ruled against a Blum-aligned white student alleging that UT’s race-conscious admissions policy had discriminated against her — led him to use high-achieving Asian American students to challenge similar policies in the future.
“The reasons why [Blum] is doing it are very unclear to me,” lim said. “But what I’m assuming is that he’s adding the community of Asian Americans to be part of this when there’s a white student complaining that she didn’t get accepted into UT… He just needed to be able to find another community to be able to add into this, and he happened to choose high-achieving students of color also, so why not pick Asians?”
The notion of “high-achieving” Asian Americans is central to the current Supreme Court case, as the plaintiffs have argued that race-conscious policies not only discriminate against white students, but Asian American students — a group which collectively scores higher on college admissions tests than white students and other minorities.
According to UConn’s Class of 2025 demographics, Asian American students comprise 14% of current UConn sophomores — despite making up less than 5% of Connecticut’s total population. Furthermore, China, India and South Korea are the three most common home countries of UConn’s international students.
But according to lim, not all groups within the Asian American community are statistically high-achieving; some students of certain Asian nationalities tend to score better and inflate the community’s overall averages.
“There’s only certain populations that are high-achieving, and that’s mainly because of the fact that they have been here longer — specifically more so the Chinese, South [Koreans] and the [Filipinos],” lim said. “But if you actually look at the Southeast Asian communities — Thai, Cambodian early refugees [and] Vietnamese — you’ll see that those are folks that don’t have the opportunity and access [in] the way that other Asian American-identified folks have been able to obtain in college or education.”
The affirmative action issue has divided the Asian American community into those who believe such programs are necessary to foster diversity and those who believe they close the door to valuable opportunities that would be available with race-blind admissions in place.
A July poll conducted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice found that 69% of all Asian Americans support race-conscious programs “designed to help Black people, women, and other minorities get better access to higher education.” Alfred-Abney struck a similar chord, arguing that this split is a “narrative” to divide minorities and distract from the greater problem of combating racism in society.
“I think it’s just [a] narrative to have people fight against each other,” Alfred-Abney said. “It’s sad that Asian families are bringing this case up to the Supreme Court… That’s how racism works, that’s how oppression works, [by] making sure the oppressed groups never come together to fight that common oppressor.”
While Alfred-Abney cannot speak on behalf of her organization before the impending affirmative action ruling is reflected in any UConn policy changes, she believes cultural groups like the AACC should improve their recruitment efforts to ensure diversity and hold the university accountable.
“Representation on committees matters,” Alfred-Abney said. “In terms of the [African American Cultural] Center as a whole, we should be doing more outreach to try to get students prepared for college and applying to UConn.”
“UConn just recently sent out a communication saying that no matter what decision is made, they’re still going to honor making sure the student body is diverse,” she added. “I’m hoping that, in practice, they do that, and that the different cultural centers and groups hold UConn up to that.”
The “communication” refers to an Oct. 31 email sent out by UConn President Radenka Maric. In this email, Maric affirmed “UConn’s commitment to creating and sustaining a diverse student body and workforce,” and linked to a pro-affirmative action editorial she published in The Connecticut Mirror on Oct. 25.
While UConn officials have otherwise remained silent about — presumably as they try to prepare for — the impending Supreme Court decision, the university’s history of supporting appellees in affirmative action cases means it will work within the framework of any legal changes to continue attracting talented students of traditionally underrepresented ethnicities.
Of affirmative action programs being ruled unconstitutional, Alfred-Abney expressed her disapproval and noted that, in a fair world, we would have an “equal percentage of all races [and] all identities” represented on campus. lim argued that any potential reversal would adversely affect all non-white college students, including those at UConn.
“It will impact everyone who the institutions are not made for, which is everyone else [who] is not white-identified,” lim said.
Carson Swick is a senior at UConn majoring in journalism and political science. He reported this story as part of UConn Journalism’s Fall 2022 Public Affairs Reporting course.