Northeastern community responds to SCOTUS decision striking down affirmative action in college admissions


The Supreme Court rejected affirmative action in college admissions in a ruling handed down Thursday, June 29. Photo by Claire Anderson via Unsplash.

Emily Spatz and Sonel Cutler

After the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that race-based admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are unconstitutional, President Joseph E. Aoun assured the Northeastern community in a statement that the university would “remain steadfast in our commitment to building a globally diverse community.”

The landmark decision will likely transform admissions processes at higher education institutions across the nation. Colleges and universities have used affirmative action policies since 1978 to increase diversity and the population of underrepresented students on campus.

In an email to students Thursday morning, Aoun reaffirmed Northeastern’s commitment to diversity, but stated that the Supreme Court’s decision will “dramatically alter” how race is considered in college admissions.

“We embrace diversity, in all its forms, because it makes Northeastern stronger as an institution of teaching and learning,” Aoun wrote. “We will remain steadfast in our commitment to building a globally diverse community – and we will continue working to foster a genuine sense of belonging on all of our campuses.”

On Northeastern’s Boston campus, some students reacted to the decision with concern over how Northeastern would continue to build a diverse class without factoring race into the admissions process.

“Once people don’t need to be held accountable for stuff like this, it becomes easier to not do it,” said Ingrid Alikaj, a rising second-year environmental engineering major. “I do see a reality where a lot of the people that start to become enrolled are wealthier or have had access to more things. … I could definitely see a reality where our demographics shift a lot.”

Devika Mujgule, a graduate student studying Information Systems, said Northeastern’s diversity is an important factor in creating a community where students of color feel like they belong.

“There were so many people I could connect to, relate to. I never felt like an outsider,” Mujgule said. “If that’s gone, I would feel a little lost. … The sense of community would be lost for me.”

Aoun also signed onto a joint statement by Gov. Maura Healey along with over 130 leaders of Massachusetts institutions of higher education, advocacy organizations and elected officials that vows to ensure that the state remains “welcoming and inclusive” to students of color and students underrepresented in higher education. 

“We want to make sure that students of color, LGBTQ+ students, first generation students and all students historically underrepresented in higher education feel welcomed and valued at our colleges and universities,” the joint statement said. “Today’s decision, while disappointing, will not change our commitment to these students.” 

The university referred to President Aoun’s public statement when asked for a response to the decision and plan to ensure continued diversity within the student body.

“The Supreme Court is saying there’s no equality if we consider race. But I’m saying there’s no equity if we don’t consider race,” said Niki Thomas, a fifth-year bioengineering graduate student and organizer with GENU-UAW, who spoke out against the decision alongside Senator Ed Markey at a press conference June 29. Thomas called Aoun’s statement “empty” and “hollow,” adding that she hoped the university would take a stronger stance against the court’s decision.

“It amplifies further the need for us to do things like unionize — There’s power in collective organizing,” Thomas said. “If the people who run our institutions aren’t willing to step up and implement things like affirmative action because the courts say so, then we have to demand those things ourselves.”

According to the majority opinion, how race has affected an applicant’s life can still be considered in the admissions decision. 

Alikaj suggested Northeastern introduce supplemental essays into the application process to allow prospective students an opportunity to “talk about what they’ve done, and if they’ve been impacted in any way” by their race.

Kevin Li,  a rising second-year computer engineering and computer science combined major, agreed, adding that the Common App could add a prompt asking respondents how race has affected their experiences.

“If race is something especially relevant to your identity or application, I think that should be an option that you could choose to write about,” Li said.

Li said the exposure to other perspectives at Northeastern was  “refreshing” after growing up in a homogenous town.

“I honestly did feel alienated in that town at times,” Li said. “I’m happy that there are a lot of people at Northeastern that had very different perspectives than I did.”

The legal case, brought by the nonprofit advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, argued that Harvard and University of North Carolina discriminated against white and Asian applicants and gave preference to Black, Hispanic and Native American students. The case was decided along partisan lines, with all six conservative justices voting to end race-conscious policies. 

Writing for the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said the Court considered the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to decide the case, stating that race-based admissions systems “fail to comply with the twin commands of the Equal Protection Clause that race may never be used as a ‘negative’ and that it may not operate as a stereotype.”

The Court went on to argue that applicants obtain advantages on the basis of their race alone, affirming the process as “stereotyping.”

“Harvard’s admissions process rests on the pernicious stereotype that a ‘Black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer,’” the opinion continued. 

In a scathing 69-page dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor contended that the racial equality guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment can only be enforced by “race-conscious means in a society that is not, and has never been, colorblind,” arguing that this decision blocks and rolls back decades of progress and precedent. 

She went on to discuss the importance of education in ensuring equality and freedom — evoking Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement — as well as the value of racially integrated schools in improving racial understanding and exposing students to diverse cultures and ideas. 

“The pursuit of racial diversity will go on,” Sotomayor wrote. “Although the Court has stripped out almost all uses of race in college admissions, universities can and should continue to use all available tools to meet society’s needs for diversity in education.”

Historically underrepresented groups in higher education are considered to be Black, Asian Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. A 2017 New York Times analysis found that Black students made up 6% of the freshman at top schools, but 15% of college-aged Americans.