In Supreme Court brief, Yale and peers defend use of race in admissions

Yale has joined a legal effort to uphold the ability to consider race and ethnicity as elements in a holistic review of applicants in the admissions process.
Cover of amicus brief

Yale has joined a legal effort to uphold the longstanding ability of colleges and universities to consider race and ethnicity as elements in a holistic review of applicants in the college admissions process.

In an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on Aug. 1, Yale added its voice in two cases involving, respectively, Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The court is expected to hear arguments in the cases, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., v. University of North Carolina et al, this fall.

Through those lawsuits, a group called Students for Fair Admissions seeks to eliminate consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions. The universities’ amicus filing opposes the suits.

Yale joined more than a dozen other universities in filing the brief, including Columbia, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and the University of Chicago.

Today Yale joined peer institutions in stating emphatically that student diversity is essential to the missions of American universities and promotes educational excellence for all students,” President Peter Salovey said. “Our amicus curiae brief makes clear that the way we consider race and ethnicity as part of individualized applicant review is crucial to achieving a richly diverse academic environment that enhances students’ educational experiences and maximizes their future success. Yale stands firm in supporting universities’ established right to compose incoming classes that are diverse along many dimensions and in its commitment to enrolling students from all walks of life.”

The brief explains why diversity is important for the education of all students, and how universities consider race and ethnicity as part of the individualized applicant review process that the Supreme Court has endorsed in a string of decisions dating back to the 1978 Bakke ruling. The filing also underscores the traditional latitude courts have given universities in selecting their students — an act of educational judgment that implicates academic freedom protected by the First Amendment.

The diversity that Amici [the schools filing the brief] seek in their admissions processes is nuanced and multifaceted; it encompasses myriad perspectives, talents, experiences, goals, backgrounds, and interests,” the universities wrote. “Amici strive to enroll a diverse student body because [they] have found that doing so significantly strengthens the educational experience [they] can provide to their students.”

The brief went on to explain that diversity fosters a more robust spirit of free inquiry and encourages dialogue that sparks new insights.

Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the complexity of the modern world,” the brief said. “Diversity prepares Amici’s graduates to pursue innovation in every field, to be active and engaged citizens equipped to wrestle with the great questions of the day, and to expand humanity’s knowledge and accomplishment.”

A trio of Supreme Court decisions over the past four decades — Regents of the Univ. of California v. Bakke, Grutter v. Bollinger, and Fisher v. Univ. of Texas — have affirmed the constitutionality of using race as one factor in admissions.

In the Harvard case, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in 2019 that the school’s limited consideration of race complies with Supreme Court precedent. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed that ruling in 2020. Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the case, along with a similar case the group filed against UNC.

In their amicus brief, Yale and the other schools said that during their admissions processes, they obtain and review extensive information regarding each applicant’s life experiences, accomplishments, talents, interests, and goals. That information includes an applicant’s socioeconomic background, parental education level, whether languages other than English are spoken in the home, educational experiences, military service, leadership skills, “and all the other intangible characteristics that are crucial to ascertaining how an applicant will contribute to the university community.”

Using exclusively race-neutral approaches to admissions, the brief stated, would undercut universities’ efforts to achieve the “benefits of diversity” they seek. Race-blindness in admissions would pose severe practical challenges and would unfairly hurt students whose race has been integral to their life experience as presented in their applications.

Such a system would put those for whom race or ethnicity is especially formative at a distinct disadvantage,” the brief argues. “Unlike applicants whose identities have been affected mainly by their socioeconomic or geographic circumstances, applicants whose formative experiences relate to race or ethnicity would be denied the opportunity to convey their full, authentic selves when competing for admission to selective schools like Amici.”

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