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Cornell affinity group members grapple with the overturn of affirmative action.

January 21, 2024

Cultural Groups Cultivate Community After Affirmative Action Overturn

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For over half a century, Cornell and over a hundred other institutions of higher education have considered race in their admissions processes due to the upholding of affirmative action in 1978. But on June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities in the United States are no longer allowed to consider race in their admissions process, prompting anticipation about shifting racial demographics in education.

According to The New York Times, it is likely that the Supreme Court’s ruling will impact the demographics of colleges and universities across the country, especially at more selective institutions. Enrollment of Black, Native American and Latino students is expected to drop while enrollment for Asian and White students is expected to rise. 

The full impact of the Court’s decision on Cornell and other higher education institutions remains unknown as the class of 2028 will be the first University class admitted since the ruling. The Sun talked to members of some of Cornell’s affinity groups, organizations formed over similar identities, to understand predictions and responses to the overturn of affirmative action.

Lawrence A. Bancroft ’25, the president of Cornell’s Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically Black fraternity whose inaugural chapter was founded at Cornell, said that assessing the true impact of discontinuing affirmative action may require waiting decades.

“I think you’re really going to need to look at 30 to 40 years down the road to see if the demographics change,” Bancroft said.

But Bancroft told The Sun that despite the ruling, the chapter will continue to support Black Cornell students through community engagement.

“My fraternity holds Tourin’ The Hill, which is an event for freshmen who are not [yet] acclimated to campus to have that environment for brothers to share what study spaces they like, what dining halls, just giving them a layout of Cornell for them to get acclimated,” Bancroft explained. “So regardless of the ruling, we’re really going to have to be there for our community.”

Juhwan Seo grad, who is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and an advocate for affirmative action, shared uncertainty about the impact of the overturn of race-based admissions. As an undergraduate student at Harvard, Seo was a founding member of Harvard’s Task Force for Asian American Progressive Advocacy and Studies, a group for Asian students to champion progressive issues.

Seo described the current anticipation for incoming enrollment numbers as a situation where “everyone’s holding their breaths.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Seo said. “I think we’ve learned from what’s happened in California.”

In 1996, Proposition 209 largely rolled back affirmative action from being used in admissions for the state’s multiple public university systems. This led to record drops in admission for Black, Native American and Latino students.

This effect was particularly salient at selective institutions like the University of California, Berkeley, where the entering class of 2023 had only 75 Native American students out of 6,931 and the University of California, Los Angeles, where in 2006, the entering class infamously had only 96 Black students out of a class of nearly 5,000. 

Katrina Greene ’27, the freshman representative of external affairs for the Caribbean Student Association expressed concern that the overturn of affirmative action will impact the membership numbers of CSA.

“The concern that’s happening in CSA is that at Cornell, Caribbean’s [already] make up a small portion of the Black students at Cornell,” Greene said. “We have talked about it before, about how it’s hard to be a Caribbean student association and getting Caribbean students to come out, reach out and apply.”

Greene shared the change in climate she perceived after the ruling.

“Now that affirmative action is gone, I hear people say ‘Oh, well thank God I got in when affirmative action was around,’ and it’s disheartening to see.” Despite this, Greene said that members of CSA are inspired to spread the word to “get people to come to our school … we’ve talked about going back to our old schools.”

Seo also explained that members of affinity organizations fear the increased politicization of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“There have long been fears and chilling effects that [there are] going to be more threats to DEI activities on campus [post affirmative action],” Seo said, referencing former attacks on diversity initiatives at higher education institutions, including changed office names and defunding DEI initiatives

After the Supreme Court’s overturn of affirmative action, President Pollack reaffirmed the University’s dedication to diversity at Cornell.

“Cornell is disappointed by the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision today,” Pollack said. “As always, Cornell will follow the law, but within its scope we will remain a welcoming community, with strong core values and an unwavering adherence to our historic founding principle: to be a university where ‘any person can find instruction in any study.’”