Drew Faust (left), John Roberts (middle), Martha Pollack (right). Hugo Amador/The Cornell Daily Sun

University presidents find themselves at a crossroads with The Supreme Court’s new ruling. How will they move forward?

August 4, 2023

EDITORIAL | Affirmative Action is Gone. President Pollack: We Need You Now More Than Ever.

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The battle against the use of affirmative action in education dates back to Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978. It’s been a silent battle, as higher education institutions have successfully defended themselves on their use of affirmative action in the lower courts for years. But when Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit member group founded by conservative activist Edward Blum, filed lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the supreme court granted a writ of certiorari to the cases. Then, The Supreme Court banned affirmative action after four decades of precedents. 

In what seems like a distant past—but is rather a reality closer to me than I’d like to believe—I was writing my college essay. Mom thought I was applying to jobs and dad was growing frustrated with the price tag on each application. College just wasn’t in my radar. I grew up in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which at the time was considered the most dangerous city in the world. I went on to excel in high school, but the burdening costs of higher education and the competitive upper hand my more well-resourced peers had made considering even applying to college a daunting feat. 

Now, I live in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There have been times where I’d stand at a light on Park Avenue, and I’d see a man dressed in a beautifully woven wool suit; a runner who revels in the red light for a chance to rest; my neighbor who collects corals from Australia, California, Honduras, you name it. And for a moment, even if brief, I’m stunned with the privilege and creative freedom that I’ve endowed by being here as I write for The Cornell Daily Sun. And I can only truly thank Cornell for that privilege. Whether my admittance was a byproduct of affirmative action or not, it’s undeniable that affirmative action policies at elite institutions have allotted those who have be less fortunate a chance to be present, benefit and produce among the rest. 

Worried that the court would likely overturn the policy, shortly after attending oral arguments for the case, Harvard’s former president, Drew Gilpin Faust, in The Atlantic claimed that the decision would exacerbate “the blindness of ‘color-blindness.’” Yet, The Court decreed that policies at institutions like Harvard and North Carolina — Cornell, included — were racially discriminatory against Asian Americans.  

It was perhaps deliberate that Faust hadn’t once mentioned the word “Asian” in her article, if not understandable. Some of the evidence brought up against Harvard was concerning; data suggested at least some form of implicit bias against Asian applicants in admissions. After all, the cases were brought up after SFFA claimed a bias against Asian Americans in the process. Harvard promptly rejected this claim (In the years following, admissions of Asian American applicants rose by 27 percent). The idea that Asian Americans had been discriminated against in both high school and college admissions is an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth for supporters of affirmative action, myself included. 

But admissions outcomes for Asian Americans at Cornell, Harvard and the like were never truly tied to affirmative action for Black and Latino applicants. These institutions could have theoretically used race considerations in admissions to increase enrollment of underrepresented minorities without creating a cap for Asian Americans. But doing so meant Asian applicants would have had to take a share of seats from white applicants in incoming classes. This, of course, could not happen. Admissions has been, and will continue to be,  a zero-sum game. 

As a result, institutional and social support for affirmative action for underrepresented minorities came with the unspoken knowing that Asian American applicants would be disfavored. And that this practice must be tolerated.

When I arrived at Cornell, I never imagined how vastly different it would be from home even with being the most diverse within the Ivy league. Nothing could ever come close to my Honduran homeland, but I was shocked at how different it was from what I call home today in New York City: At any given time, I was swarmed with people of all backgrounds. Black, Latino, Afro-Latino, White, Asian, Native American, etc. But at Cornell it was evident that there was a white majority. Every few months I would attend an event hosted by the Latino Living Center at Cornell. I was in awe that there were enough of us to fit a room. At the end of the evening, we dispersed, knowing that the likelihood that our paths cross again soon was slim. 

Although SFFAs suit claims to protect Asians, it is widely received as a means to propel Edward Blum’s broader agenda to make a color-blind society out of one that can’t, and never will be, color-blind. And the effects are dire: Our neighboring institution, Ithaca College, which has long refrained from considering race in admissions, states that its student body is 72.4 percent white, meanwhile its BIPOC population falls behind at 23.2 percent. At elite institutions like Cornell — where people of color are already the minority — Black and Latino admittance will surely decline. 

In his concurrence in Bakke, Justice Harry Blackmun mentioned that “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way.” Affirmative action has always been seen as a vehicle to overturn the decades of racism and marginalization against people of color with the added benefit of a diverse student body. But Faust’s urge to ignore Affirmative action’s imperfection is telling of its instability. In response, Chief Justice John Roberts, in a polar rejoinder in SFFA, INC. v. Harvard responded that the “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating against the basis of race.” Our affirmative action policies were never perfect, if anything they were bound to fail. But it was all we had to give underrepresented minorities somewhat of a chance. 

And so I took a chance at Cornell with my broken English and imperfect aptitude for anything. Someone knew, despite all the U-turns and bumps and blindspots in my life, that I could learn something from this place and that Cornell could (hopefully) learn something from me. This was the reason I left my country; I experienced a fuller and expanded version of the world with my time at Cornell. I was welcomed into spaces that I otherwise never would have known existed.  I was handed opportunities that—whether we like to admit it or not—only places like Cornell can hand over on a silver platter. 

Unlike the masses, I had not paved my way through expensive private school. Nor had I gone to a well funded public high school who “feeds” their students into institutions like Cornell. Nowadays, wealthier communities fund highschools towards better teachers, resources and opportunities. But with less and less poorer Blacks and Latinos living in richer neighborhoods, only white majorities get to cherish the fruits of their labors, as they compete with an edge in opportunities and padded resumes their minority counterparts will never get. Black and Latino students scored, on average, lower than white and Asian students in standardized test scores and grade point averages as a result. In the 1960s and 1970s when Cornell decided to look beyond only GPA and test scores for admittance, enrollment and graduation of Black students increased from eight to 250.

But it is not to be forgotten that institutions like Cornell also benefit from these practices in return. The presence of minority students expands the worldview of the rest; they bring Cornell to a level playing field of “reality”, towards a realization of what the real world is like to individuals like myself. And perhaps these effects can’t be completely counted or measured, but they can be felt. If we continue to grow as monotonous as we are — which is the inevitable outcome of this decision — we will be whiplashed with the reality of difference upon our entry into the real world.

President Martha Pollack announced in a statement that Cornell will follow the letter of the law, while grasping to its motto of “any person, any study.” In November 2020, President Pollack announced the Undergraduate Admissions Task Force. What that means for admissions exactly, we’re not entirely sure for now. But one thing is clear: If university presidents don’t subdue The Supreme Court’s new interpretations of the policy, elite universities like Cornell will become disproportionately whiter and less Black and Latino.

The Supreme Court justices anticipated that while admission officers cannot take race into account, they cannot bar applicants from acknowledging how race is vital to their identity and life experiences in their personal statements. Now, more than ever, the college essay will be heavy in themes about race for Black and Latino applicants as a form of necessity. A reality in which race is removed from the admission process entirely is unlikely. Instead, by overturning affirmative action, rather than recommending an improved policy where race is considered, we put pressure on minority applicants to put their hardships on display

This decision will impact generations to come. Universities must follow suit, the admission process will forever be changed and we fear for those applicants that never had the opportunities and resources of their privileged peers. President Pollack, being president of one of the 12 most prestigious universities in the country, holds the power to determine who the next leaders of the country will be. At these schools, if you change their student bodies, then you change America.

University presidents must now find means of adhering to diversity despite the recent trials and tribulations against it; to find ways of acknowledging the potential of those who have been less fortunate; to find ways of reminding Asian, Black, Latinx and Native and Indigenous students, present and future, that they are not only welcome, but that they are worthy. The Supreme Court has left us no choice but to find alternate ways of delivering on that promise, as far as limits on the law permit.

President Pollack, we need you now more than ever.

Hugo Amador is the Opinion Editor for The Cornell Daily Sun’s Editorial Board. Editorials are penned collaboratively between the Editor-in-Chief, Associate Editor and Opinion Editor, in consultation with additional The Cornell Daily Sun editors and staffers. The Cornell Daily Sun’s editorials are independent of its news coverage, other columnists and advertisers and represents only a majority view of the Editorial Board.

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