by Eric Johnson ’08
When the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to race-conscious college admissions this summer, ruling against UNC and Harvard University in a landmark decision, campus leaders were left in a bind.
Just how far the University can go in trying to build a diverse class has always been contentious, and the court’s decision to effectively ban affirmative action put greater scrutiny on Carolina’s approach to recruitment and financial aid. Like many highly selective institutions, Carolina enrolls Black students at a far lower rate than their share of the state’s high school graduate population. Advocates for greater campus diversity worry those numbers may fall further now that race can’t be an automatic factor in admissions decisions.
At the same time, the University’s efforts toward diversity and inclusion face opposition from policymakers who want to see race become a less important focus at Carolina. “I’ve never believed you can end discrimination with discrimination,” Board of Trustees member Marty Kotis ’91 said in an interview with NC Newsline. “You cannot judge people based on the color of their skin, their gender or their religion. It doesn’t make sense.”
That has left Carolina’s leaders struggling to reconcile competing visions of what racial progress means for the nation’s oldest public university. Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz called the court’s ruling “a fundamental change in the law that governs our admissions process,” and made clear that the University would comply with the ruling.
He emphasized that Carolina’s commitment to serving all students remains firm, and the University announced a new financial aid initiative and targeted outreach efforts to help mitigate the impact of the ruling. North Carolina families making less than $80,000 per year can expect grant aid to cover the full cost of tuition and fees, according to the chancellor’s announcement, and the admissions office will hire counselors to serve areas of the state the University considers under-resourced in terms of college guidance and access.
“Our responsibility to comply with the law does not mean we will abandon our fundamental values as a university,” Guskiewicz wrote in a July 7 message to campus. “Our University’s commitment to access and affordability and supporting a culture of belonging for everyone does not change with last week’s ruling.”
“Our responsibility to comply with the law does not mean we will abandon our fundamental values as a university.” — Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz
The program and the timing of the announcement drew immediate rebukes from some members of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors, who questioned the authority and the motivation behind the new policy. Board Chairman Randy Ramsey said the substance of the plan made sense, but Chapel Hill deserved an “F” on timing. The new initiatives should not be used or perceived as a way of getting around the Supreme Court ruling, Ramsey and other BOG members said, raising questions about whether pursuing diversity through “race-neutral” policies can be effective.
Financial aid and targeted recruitment are obvious ways for campus leaders to follow the court’s prohibition on race-conscious admissions while still striving for a diverse class. In places like California, which banned affirmative action in 1996 via a statewide referendum called Proposition 209, it took years of experimenting with new admissions and recruiting strategies to help encourage more Black and Hispanic students to apply at University of California system schools. After Proposition 209, “freshman enrollees from underrepresented minority groups dropped precipitously at UC, and dropped by 50 percent or more at UC’s most selective campuses,” wrote the presidents and chancellors of the University of California system in an amicus brief filed in support of Carolina. California has tried a range of programs to increase the number of students of color, but “those measures, while beneficial, have limitations that have prevented UC from achieving its educational objectives through those measures alone.”
It remains to be seen whether Carolina will have more success — or will even have the chance to try. To many state policymakers, the Supreme Court’s ruling represents a vindication that diversity efforts have gone too far. More than eight years after Students for Fair Admissions Inc. first sued UNC and Harvard University alleging that consideration of race in college admissions amounts to unfair discrimination, the court ruled by a margin of 6-3 that systematic consideration of an applicant’s race amounts to a violation of the 14th Amendment, and that Harvard and Carolina failed to articulate a clear set of metrics for measuring diversity.
“Because Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points, those admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. “Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin. This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
“I’ve never believed you can end discrimination with discrimination. You cannot judge people based on the color of their skin, their gender or their religion. It doesn’t make sense.” — Board of Trustees member Marty Kotis ’91
The ruling was expected after a majority of the justices expressed misgivings about race-conscious admissions during oral arguments last fall. But it hasn’t ended the debate about how universities should weigh diversity .
Erika Wilson, a UNC Law professor who teaches about race and public policy, argues Carolina has an obligation to work toward a more representative student body given the long history of racial exclusion in higher education and systemic underfunding of K–12 schools that serve Black students. Given that the majority of Carolina undergraduates hail from the state’s public schools, it would make sense to create more targeted recruitment efforts in places that have historically sent few students to Chapel Hill.
Wilson cited the state’s long-running Hoke County Board of Education v. The State of North Carolina, also known as the Leandro case, in which courts have repeatedly ordered lawmakers to address chronic underfunding and underperformance in school districts that serve majority Black populations. “We’re not starting from a level playing field to begin with,” Wilson said. “I think if UNC were so inclined, they might consider doing some analysis of the K–12 public school system in areas that have been particularly hit hard by underfunding and connecting them with their admissions policies and preferences. Give an extra look to students who prevail out of these kinds of schools. That’s something the University could and should take into consideration.”
Carolina already supports a number of outreach and admissions programs designed to reach students from high-poverty schools. The Carolina College Advising Corps places recent UNC graduates in high-needs schools across the state, from large urban schools in Charlotte and Greensboro to small, rural high schools. The Carolina Covenant program, UNC’s initiative to offer debt-free financial aid to low-income students, has been shown to boost graduation rates for low-income and minority students.
Advertising scholarship aid for low- and middle-income families can encourage a broader population of students to apply. Days before the Supreme Court ruling, Duke University announced a new program to waive tuition for families in North Carolina and South Carolina making less than $150,000 per year. While the announcement didn’t mention affirmative action, it was perceived as a way to bolster minority recruitment.
“I think, increasingly, financial aid policies will be intertwined with admissions and recruitment, since one of the important ways to increase diversity by race … is to do a better job of recruiting working-class students.” — education policy scholar Richard Kahlenberg
“I think, increasingly, financial aid policies will be intertwined with admissions and recruitment, since one of the important ways to increase diversity by race in the absence of race-based admissions is to do a better job of recruiting working-class students,” Richard Kahlenberg, a scholar of education policy and an advocate for class-based affirmative action, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “If the only legal way to promote racial diversity becomes increasing socioeconomic and geographic diversity, then universities are going to have to do what they should have, in my view, done a long time ago.”
The court’s ruling puts Carolina in “uncharted territory” when it comes to minority enrollment, said Student Body President Christopher Everett. Not long after the court’s decision, Everett, a senior, attended a dinner for Project Uplift, a UNC outreach program that works to encourage low-income and minority high school students to apply to college. “They were terrified by what it meant for them,” he said. “The students were so concerned about their odds of getting into a university like Carolina because their story is being invalidated.”
Everett, a public policy major from Clayton, said he’s proud to be UNC’s third consecutive Black student body president. He said Carolina feels like home to him, and he wants the next generation of Black Tar Heels to know they belong, too. “I love this university. Of course I do,” Everett said. “And I’m trying to do all I can to show that students of color are still here, still resilient, still trying to improve this place we care about.”
In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Justice Roberts noted that universities can still weigh an individual applicant’s experience of race, so long as it’s expressed in an essay or some other format that “is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”
Longtime observers of affirmative action policies and litigation predicted more lawsuits as universities look for alternatives to race-conscious admissions while critics of diversity initiatives try to enforce a more colorblind approach to campus life. “They’re going to go after anything that smells like an end-run around what they perceive to be their victory in this case,” said UNC law professor Ted Shaw, participating in a discussion in July about the ruling with other law faculty. “There’s going to be a great deal of litigation aimed at what they see as proxies [for race].”
In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Roberts nodded to that tension by noting universities can still weigh an applicant’s experience of race, so long as it’s expressed in an essay or some format that “is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.” In other words, race can matter on an individual level, but can’t be considered in a systematic way.
“We are in a weird situation where we’re allowed to tout that racial diversity is great, but we’re not allowed to engage in things to directly achieve it,” explained Andy Hessick, a Carolina law professor who spoke on the panel about the SFFA decision. The Supreme Court’s reversal on race in admissions — it has revisited affirmative action repeatedly over the past few decades — reflects a larger societal conflict about how salient race should be seen and acknowledged in American life.
Everett sounded a more optimistic note about where Carolina is headed, pointing out that a university electing three consecutive Black leaders to represent the student body has come a long way from the nearly whites-only institution that existed through the 1950s. He wants to continue working in policy after he graduates, possibly attending law school and finding a role in advocacy, and Carolina’s prominent place in the affirmative action debate has been good preparation.
“Our campus now is so rich. There are so many different experiences and identities,” Everett said. “I’m happy to be on a campus where there are so many folks who are engaged and riled up and really fighting for a space that includes all of us.”
Eric Johnson ’08 is a writer in Chapel Hill. He works for the UNC System and the College Board.