Ted Mason
Ted Mason, PhD

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to ban race-conscious admissions in higher education, experts in the field of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) are at a crossroads. As institutions grapple with the challenges of fostering diverse learning environments while navigating a new, vague ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), INSIGHT spoke to Ted Mason, PhD, and Brooke Vick, PhD, co-presidents of the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers (LADO) organization, as part of our effort to delve into the future of higher education in a post-affirmative action landscape. 

Brooke Vick
Brooke Vick, PhD

The organization is a consortium of senior diversity officers from 36 private liberal arts institutions across the U.S. who exchange ideas and best practices to implement equitable and inclusive strategies on their campuses. Mason serves as associate provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Kenyon College in Ohio. Vick is chief diversity officer at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

In your view, how will this decision affect academia in the long term? Is this a temporary setback or a major hurdle to continued progress?

Mason: I have some deep concerns about the possible long-term effects of the SCOTUS decision in these two cases. We are working with our lawyers and with … professional associations such as the National Association of College and University Attorneys, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators to fully comply with Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion while maintaining our mission of commitment to access, diversity, and inclusion, subject to the guidelines permitted by the Supreme Court. 

Vick: In some ways, we had a preview of how academia will be affected by this decision in California and Michigan, when race-conscious admissions practices were overturned there. Despite their best efforts, enrollment rates for Black students and Latinx students have not returned to their pre-decision levels, despite their overall populations increasing. Sadly, the long-term effects of this decision are likely less diverse student bodies in higher education, which will lead to a lack of diversity within many professional, educational, and civic settings across the country. 

Given research demonstrating that diverse teams are more innovative and perform better financially, the ripple effects of decreasing diversity in higher education will no doubt impact the health of the global economy and higher education’s ability to prepare students to lead within diverse, high-performing organizations. And while I am aware of and will continue to support other efforts we can make to ensure that our campuses reflect the diversity of the communities in which they reside, I think the decision creates a considerable hurdle to continued progress on many fronts.

How has the decision impacted your institution’s policies and practices?

Mason: At this point, exactly how it will impact our practices going forward is unclear. We have been monitoring the situation since earlier in this past academic year and will continue to reflect on the practices we have used in the admissions process. Our intention, of course, is to comply fully with the law.

Vick: Like many institutions, we are still in the process of determining what the SCOTUS decision specifically means for us at Muhlenberg. I can say, however, that we have used a holistic admissions review process for decades to enroll diverse classes of students, and the core of that practice need not and will not change. However, in recent years our holistic review process has considered race as one factor helping us to place the student’s application in context of their experiences, perspectives, and opportunities. 

In light of this ruling, our application review process will not include an applicant’s race unless they choose to discuss that in an essay. As an institution committed to equity, inclusion, and belonging for everyone, it has long been our practice to support policies and programs that address the diverse needs of members of our community without excluding opportunities or participation according to any social identity. A review of our policies and practices is consistent with that commitment, so there are few changes that we anticipate needing to make beyond ensuring that the language we use to describe our policies and programs is consistent with our practices. 

What can colleges and universities do to ensure equitable admission without violating the court’s ruling? What are the challenges of implementing
and maintaining these initiatives?

Mason: The principal challenge, I think, is brought on by the vagueness of Chief Justice Roberts’ ruling. We are obtaining legal opinion regarding compliance with Justice Roberts’ guidance that we can consider a person’s individual lived experience relative to race as framed in an essay regarding “how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise … tied to that student’s courage and determination.” We are developing practices to comply with the opinion. Most institutions of which I am aware already use a holistic approach in admissions. Certainly, Kenyon College does. No student has ever been admitted to Kenyon on the basis of being one thing or occupying one identity. Our processes have always been holistic. Yet given the Supreme Court decision, one challenge is to think about exactly what we are allowed to know about an applicant and what things are out of bounds.

Vick: I think the type of holistic approach to admissions decisions that we have employed at Muhlenberg for decades will help us continue to progress toward our diversity goals without violating the court’s ruling. 

The challenge, however, with the type of “colorblind” approach to admissions that the Court would have us follow is that ignoring race as a factor in admissions does not negate the influence that race has on the opportunities and lived experiences of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian students, which can ultimately influence their access to higher education. So where affirmative action policies acknowledged those differences and offered a mechanism to reduce the inequities that members of minoritized racial groups experience, we are now faced with the challenge once again of finding other means of providing equitable access to those groups. 

In order to achieve equitable access within the limits of the SCOTUS decision, it will be more important to ensure equitable recruitment practices are in place that reduce barriers for historically excluded students. Colleges and universities will need to review their practices and consider, for example, if they are including high schools and neighborhoods that have a larger representation of historically excluded students in their recruitment plans. Reviewing coursework that is required for admissions and ensuring that those courses are provided to students in those areas will also be critical. Reducing additional barriers to application and enrollment for historically excluded students will be an important step for institutions going forward.

What role can socioeconomic status play in ensuring student diversity?

Mason: One of the first considerations, it seems, is to focus on socioeconomic status and expanded outreach as a way of moving forward to permit access and inclusion. Such a consideration is certainly important on its own terms. 

Vick: Although it is a myth that socioeconomic status is a precise proxy for race, decades of structural racism has limited the generational wealth and average earning potential of communities of color in the United States such that greater racial diversity often occurs within lower-resourced communities. To the extent that race and class intersect in this way in different regions of the country, colleges and universities can expect efforts to increase access to students from lower-resourced communities to contribute to their racial diversity goals as well. 

How has the ruling affected the overall DEI climate in higher education?

Mason: It is important to see the ruling as part of a more general attack on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives — and such an attack is not limited to race, though that is the focus of the recent SCOTUS decision. In my opinion, the effect is certainly deleterious. But it is also galvanizing as we endeavor to comply with the Supreme Court’s majority opinion. … Many faculty and staff, it seems clear, see this ruling as part of the general onslaught against the practices of inclusion. To borrow from a well-known phrase, eternal vigilance seems the right approach — that, and a material recommitment to our institutional mission of access, diversity, and inclusion, as permitted by Justice Roberts’ opinion.

Vick: The Supreme Court ruling has dealt another blow to the work that so many of us do to ensure equitable access to education and opportunity for everyone, inclusive of many who historically have been excluded from higher education. It cuts to the core of our values and motives for doing equity work, work that is too often one step forward and three steps back, so it is definitely taking its toll. It can be exhausting and demoralizing to face these continued barriers but, ironically, it also validates the critical need for our work to continue.

This article was published in our September 2023 issue.