If affirmative action is overturned, how could it change Duke admissions?

The Supreme Court will decide whether race-conscious admissions practices are constitutional this June, following oral arguments heard in two cases against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in fall 2022. 

The court is expected to rule against Harvard and UNC, according to the New York Times, thereby curtailing the extent to which race can be used as a factor in admissions decisions or eliminating its use altogether. 

If race-conscious admissions practices are ruled unconstitutional, perhaps the most immediate change at Duke would be the difference in racial composition of new undergraduate classes admitted to the University. 

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag wrote that the Office of Undergraduate Admissions currently considers race as “one of many meaningful elements in the diversity of a student body.”

“It’s something we’re aware of, but how it affects our understanding of a person as an applicant, as an individual in their community, and as a potential member of the Duke community varies from person to person,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

Generally, it is expected that eliminating racial preferences within undergraduate admissions will decrease the representation of Black and Latinx students and increase the number of Asian American and white students admitted. This is especially true of elite institutions like Duke, which recruit from all across the country.

“In the long run, what you do is you undermine education for Black people,” said James Coleman, John S. Bradway professor of the practice of law and head of the admissions committee at Duke School of Law. 

According to Peter Arcidiacono, William Henry Glasson professor of economics, the effects of overturning affirmative action on diversity may not be as severe as expected. Arcidiacono specializes in research pertaining to affirmative action in higher education and served as an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions, a national nonprofit that brought forward the complaints against race-conscious admissions in both cases. 

Arcidiacono said that if race-conscious admissions practices are determined unconstitutional Duke’s diversity will be affected, but “probably not as much as the models would predict because [the admissions office] will figure out ways to respond,” Arcidiacono said. 

He said that universities will figure out a way to promote diversity, citing University of California schools’ decision to not consider SAT or ACT test scores when making admissions decisions. 

Guttentag confirmed that the undergraduate admissions office is actively discussing “how [it] can go about continuing to create a diverse class in the context of how the Supreme Court rules.”

“Race is of course a meaningful element of the diversity at Duke, but it’s also one of very many. Our commitment to the diversity of the student body at Duke in multiple dimensions is and will remain unchanged,” Guttentag wrote.

However, Guttentag also stated that he believes in having as many tools as possible to create a “class and a community that’s consistent with the values and goals of its institution.”

“​The more choices we have, the more things we can consider, the better we’re able to create a community that’s talented, interesting, creative, engaged and diverse in many ways,” he wrote.

Coleman said that overturning affirmative action could potentially decrease the support for public education. He believes that over time, residents will petition to decrease funding for public universities if the student populations being educated are not reflective of the community’s demographics. 

“So, in the long run, what will happen is that I think that society will stop supporting education,” he said. “Because why should I subsidize the education of white students? If you're not educating Black students?” 

Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, argues that overturning affirmative action is a favorable decision and may “begin the restoration of our nation’s constitutional colorblind legal covenant.”

“Ending the consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions is not a controversial goal,” Blum wrote in an email. 

He cited a 2022 survey by Pew Research, which found that 74% of all Americans, including 59% of African-Americans, 64% of Asian Americans and 68% of Hispanic people, do not believe race should be a factor in college admissions. 

“Those who advocate for the continuation of race in admissions are working against the convictions and preferences of the majority of America’s racial minorities,” he added.

According to Arcidiacono, the group of students that would be most negatively impacted by overturning affirmative action would be higher-income underrepresented minorities. He stated that his research shows that the current system of undergraduate admissions gives greater preference to race than income. 

“You will get a large bump if you’re Black, a smaller bump if you’re poor, but if you are poor and Black, you don’t get the ‘poor bump.’ And so, racial preference actually helps advantaged underrepresented minorities more,” Arcidiacono said. 

Another potential effect Arcidiacono identified of overturning affirmative action is the lack of trust it may create in our institutions and their accountability for diversity and inclusion.

“I think that affirmative action is like a lot of programs designed to build trust … Like, can you trust the institutions? Is the system rigged against you?” Arcidiacono said.

Aranciadiano declined to comment on his opinion about the anticipated decision of the case.

The nature of the two cases, one against a private university, Harvard, and one against a public university, UNC, also plays a role in how Duke’s admission practices will be affected. Each of these cases will determine the constitutionality of race-conscious admission practices for public and private schools individually. 

If the Supreme Court only rules in favor of SFFA in the UNC case, it’s most likely that Duke’s admission practices will not be affected given that Duke is private, according to Arcidiacono.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of SFFA in the Harvard case, possibly forcing private schools to also adopt race-blind admissions, Coleman says that it would undermine Duke’s goal of recruiting and educating leaders from around the country and the world. 

In 2018, ​​Duke, along with 16 other universities, filed an amicus brief on behalf of Harvard, supporting Harvard’s position in the case and expressed itself as an invested party. 

Sana Pashankar profile
Sana Pashankar | Staff Reporter

Sana Pashankar is a Trinity senior and a staff reporter of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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