When the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action at universities was handed down earlier this summer, Nazareth University was not only ready to deal with the aftermath, but it was also ahead of the curve when it came to ensuring equity and access for its students, staff and faculty.
“Equity has always been part of our core — part of our values,” said Christie Smith, Nazareth’s associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment.
The Supreme Court on June 29 struck down affirmative action in college admissions, stating that race cannot be a factor and making institutions of higher education look for other ways to increase diversity on campus. Race can still be considered, but only as part of an applicant’s discussion of how race has impacted their lives.
The court’s conservative majority effectively overturned cases reaching back 45 years in invalidating admissions plans at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the nation’s oldest private and public colleges, respectively.
Smith says Nazareth is well positioned to continue its diversity efforts through its strategic enrollment initiatives, community partnerships and programming.
Nazareth, for example, made college entrance exams optional for years, well before the COVID-19 pandemic. It also offers a free admissions application and has strengthened its relationships with community-based organizations.
The university will continue to improve upon the application process in a way that reduces barriers, she says.
Despite the ruling, Smith says Nazareth is in a good position and should not be impacted in a way other institutions may be based on its values and strategic initiatives.
Due to its efforts, Nazareth has seen an increase in the number of Blacks and Hispanics considering, visiting and applying to the university.
In fact, the number of minorities entering the university for the upcoming fall semester has increased, Smith says.
Tracie Lopardi is a partner at Harris Beach PLLC. She focuses her practice on counseling corporations and educational institutions on labor and employment law matters. Prior to coming to Harris Beach, she was the first General Counsel at Niagara University.
She says the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions will transform the admissions landscape for universities in Rochester, Buffalo and across the country.
“Typically, institutions of higher education are seeking to increase enrollment aligned to their strategic plans for growth, including diversity and inclusion, and therefore will now have to adjust,” she says.
That may not be particularly easy, Lopardi adds, as questions remain under the decision as to what methods are still available to universities that wish to promote equity, diversity and inclusion.
For instance, the court, in attempting to answer this, said that admissions may consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected” the student’s life, whether “through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.” The majority also said a college admission board may consider how “a student who overcame racial discrimination” reflects that student’s “courage and determination.”
“Clearly, these leave various issues open to interpretation,” she says. “It is going to take time and careful thought for universities to determine new ways of making sure their revised admissions processes are fair for typically disadvantaged communities and in full compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision.”
The decision of the Supreme Court also gives universities an opportunity to explore different admissions methods to achieve their goals of providing educational opportunity to all, Lopardi says.
She suggests that universities take a holistic approach to the student applicant through the admissions process. Part of such an approach could consider a student’s household income and regional background to provide diversity and inclusion concerning those qualities, she explains.
Another consideration may include weighing standardized testing scores less, as studies have shown that those requirements reinforce race gaps. Further, the ruling specifically refers to race-based experiences so the lived experiences of applicants may be an important component for universities to consider, she adds.
Possibly the most important step, Lopardi says, is for universities to document the admission process so it is clear how decisions are made to accept students, in accordance with the court’s decision.
“Universities should be clear about the factors they are using, so those who seek admission understand how they will be evaluated,” Lopardi says.
The University of Rochester did not respond to requests for comment, but issued a statement following the ruling that said it is it is carefully reviewing the decision with its legal team and others to determine the potential impact on the school’s operations.
“Fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging is a central tenet of the school’s institutional vision and values and extends to policies and practices for admissions, recruitment and employment in accordance with the principles of equal opportunity and in compliance with applicable laws,” the statement read.
It continued: “While we undergo this analysis, we once again affirm the university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and we recognize that higher education and society at-large benefit from the diversity of thought that emerges from the open exchange of ideas among people from different backgrounds, identities, experiences and beliefs.”
In a joint statement, SUNY Chancellor John B. King Jr. and SUNY’s board of trustees, said, despite the Supreme Court ruling, the resolve to provide opportunity for all has never been stronger at SUNY.
“On behalf of the students we serve, the faculty and staff who make SUNY a place of excellence and the communities and employers that rely on SUNY’s diversity for their own success, we know that no court ruling – however misguided – can shake our understanding that our pursuit of diversity, equity and inclusion, within the law, will always be integral to ensuring that SUNY is the best public system of higher education in the country,” the statement read.
David Munson, president of Rochester Institute of Technology, also issued a statement following the ruling. An RIT spokesperson said the school was not doing additional interviews on the subject at this time.
In the statement, Munson said the court decision will not affect the way students are admitted at RIT.
“While operating under the law, we will strive to continue diversifying our student body as outlined under the university’s strategic plan,” he said, noting the school seeks diversity in many forms within the admissions review process. “We firmly believe that students living and learning within a diverse community enrich the educational experiences for all.”
He referred to Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, which stated, “Ignoring race will not equalize a society that is racially unequal.”
Munson also noted that Sotomayor and the other dissenting justices recognized the “central role that education plays in breaking the cycle of inequality.”
Diversity and inclusion are fundamental aspects of RIT’s identity as an institution and are intrinsically tied to its historic strength as a forward-looking university, he continued.
The school’s Division of Diversity and Inclusion works collaboratively with the entire RIT community to create an environment that embraces all students, faculty and staff.
According to the division’s website, “Respecting different cultures, perspectives and beliefs is important because we believe through thoughtful engagement, we can all learn from our differences.”
Data from the Division of Diversity and Inclusion at RIT shows there is a 52 percent chance that any two undergraduate students selected at random are of different race/ethnicity.
“We remain committed to, and invested in, our diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, which are unlikely to be affected by any court ruling,” Munson said.
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