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Supreme Court ruling on college affirmative action will minimally impact Utah

An aerial view of campus at the University of Utah, Oct. 4, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
Julio Cortez
An aerial view of campus at the University of Utah, Oct. 4, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Colleges and universities will have to find alternative ways of building a diverse student population after the Supreme Court ended affirmative action in the admissions process.

The court ruled race can no longer be a factor because it's unconstitutional and violates the 14th Amendment. At the center of the ruling were Harvard and the University of North Carolina, where race conscious admission programs were struck down in a 6-3 vote.

Chief Justice John Roberts backed the decision by saying universities for too long have “concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

The nation's second Black justice, Judge Clarence Thomas, had longbeen on the opposing side of affirmative action. He said the decision “sees the universities’ admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes.”

But not everyone sees it that way.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the court's first Black female justice, criticized the decision saying it's “truly a tragedy for us all.”

Jackson, who sat out the Harvard case because she had been a member of an advisory governing board, wrote, “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

Even before Thursday's ruling, nine states had already 86’d affirmative action in higher education institutions. Including California, Michigan and Washington state where minority enrollment declined in those states leading public universities.

In Utah, many schools are open-enrollment, meaning race is not the end-all factor in the admissions process. But inclusion on student campuses is still a commitment.

The Utah System of Higher Education said it is still assessing what, if any, broader impacts the ruling may have on the state.

"While the recent decision by the Supreme Court to strike down affirmative action policies may be causing concern among students and families throughout the nation, it is important to note that this ruling will not impact admissions at public colleges and universities in Utah,” said Director of Communications Trisha Dugovic. “Unlike some other institutions across the country, Utah public colleges and universities do not consider an applicant’s race or ethnicity when making admissions decisions."

At the University of Utah, the approach to creating a diverse student body is accomplished through community outreach rather than admissions.

"So being a more constant, and consistent presence in communities that have traditionally been underrepresented,” said Erika George, a law professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. “And looking at other potentially race-neutral things that aren't as neutral as we might like to imagine, like standardized test scores."

When it comes to what the court’s opinion means for students of all backgrounds getting a higher education, George said the decision appears to struggle with what it means to have equal protection in a multiracial democracy.

"There is a view, and it's the one that prevailed today, that means color blindness and not looking at race. And that then resolves tensions around racism and exclusion. The other view is not one that takes color blindness as the means to move forward and realize the promise of the protection clause."

Utah State University spokesperson Amanda DeRito said the Supreme Court's decision does not affect their admissions practices because race is not a factor in making decisions.

"As a land-grant university, USU is committed to increasing access and opportunity for all Utahns to attend our institution and will continue our efforts to build a campus community that supports and reflects this mission."

Westminster University doesn't use race and ethnicity in its admissions process either.

"We're again continuing to practice our individualized holistic admissions process to create diversity within our student populations. And even though this ruling is going to complicate that further, Westminster is committed to that," said Dr. Tamara Stevenson, vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Brigham Young University told KUER they were still reviewing the ruling and were not able to offer a comment at this time.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
Founded in 1846 in New York City, The Associated Press is a not-for-profit news agency.
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