If you watched the last presidential debate, you probably noticed that the first topic Chris Wallace pressed the candidates on was the Supreme Court. Control over the Supreme Court is always a contentious issue, but Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and the sudden Supreme Court vacancy has made the tension more much apparent.. Whoever wins this election will be tasked with appointing a new Justice and possibly two others, potentially changing the ideology of the majority of the Court for 25 years as Wallace put it. This has enormous repercussions for a host of issues from gun control to abortion, but I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about affirmative action.
As you might know, the Supreme Court upheld the inclusion of affirmative action in college admissions policies over the summer. In doing so, it said that since educational diversity is a valid goal for administrators, colleges and universities should have wide discretion in considering race in admissions policy. Since administrators cannot explicitly rely on a quota system, they consider race as part of holistic review. First-years probably remember hearing almost every college they applied to admit to using this policy. In short, holistic review means that admissions considers a wide range of factors when considering a student, including academics, extracurriculars, and diversity. It was this policy that was under threat before the Court this summer, and the same policy that current Columbia President, Lee C. Bollinger defended in 2003.
Your choices this election are rather stark. When the Court ruled over the summer, the traditional conservatives dissented, though not for stereotypical ‘Republicans don’t understand black people’ reasons. Justice Samuel Alito who wrote the dissent for the second Fisher v. University of Texas in Austin case articulates that affirmative action as practiced has “gone berserk” and helps affluent African-Americans more than Asian-Americans. This is interesting since the same petitioners behind that case are also advancing with another case against Harvard University centering around Asian-Americans. If Trump appoints two conservatives or centrist Justice Kennedy is persuaded by these arguments with one Trump appointee, affirmative action through holistic review is dead. Hillary Clinton, we can gander, probably will appoint justices that will affirm affirmative action, ensuring that even if Kennedy is swayed by conservative arguments, affirmative action will stay.
Look, we can have long lengthy debates over the value of affirmative action in colleges, but I don’t want to delve too deep into whether we should have affirmative action. What I will say is that throughout the country, one of the most prominent demands from activists has been an increase in diversity within the student body. Holistic review is the only way colleges can do that somewhat directly. Columbia might be able to produce similar effects by focusing on socioeconomic diversity within its large applicant pool. I imagine someone who cares about racial diversity would still want Columbia to be able to prioritize racial diversity instead of hoping the mechanics work out. But I also imagine people who want admissions to be fair and more predictable would prefer Columbia adopt standards that can be measured and scrutinized. Whatever your side, this debate will be decided by who controls the presidency and the Senate.
Ufon’s mini-series, Columbia and the 2016 Election, will run through the November 8th Presidential Elections.
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