A ‘Huge Blow’: Harvard Faculty Dismayed With Affirmative Action Ruling


Several Harvard faculty members said they were disappointed — though not surprised — in the hours following the Supreme Court’s Thursday decision to dramatically restrict affirmative action.

Still, some expressed hope for Harvard’s ability to maintain diversity in its student body.

The Court ruled 6-2 against Harvard and 6-3 against the University of North Carolina in twin lawsuits filed by Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group. It found that the two schools’ race-conscious admissions policies violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In emails and interviews Thursday, several faculty members said they were dismayed by the Court’s ruling and the effect it could have on racial diversity in higher education.


Cornell William Brooks, a professor of the practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and former president of the NAACP, said the Court’s “colorblind” reading of the 14th Amendment — originally used to protect African Americans who were newly freed from enslavement — was “intellectually duplicitous” while “flatly ignoring the history” of Reconstruction.

“There’s a kind of fanciful quality to this opinion that demonstrates that these folks either don’t care or don’t know about the realities of racial subjugation,” Brooks said.

Janet Gyatso, a professor of Buddhist Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, called the decision a “huge blow” for efforts to diversify higher education.

“I believe that we’ve made really a lot of good progress because of affirmative action,” Gyatso said in an interview. “It’s really functioned to give lots of other people opportunities and raise up different communities who were disadvantaged and put them on an even playing field.”

“Now, we’re not going to be able to do that anymore,” she added.

An hour after Thursday’s ruling, Harvard’s top administrators issued a joint statement saying they would comply with the ruling, reiterating their commitment to the value of diversity in higher education.

In messages over email lists, the faculty deans of most of Harvard’s 12 undergraduate dormitories seconded the University’s statement and encouraged students to reach out to House staff to discuss the ruling.

“We are very much feeling the gravity of the ruling,” wrote Quincy House Faculty Deans Eric Beerbohm and Leslie J. Duhaylongsod in a message to Quincy affiliates, echoing a message from President-elect Claudine Gay. “In our role as Faculty Deans, we passionately believe that diversity and inclusion are key attributes of a successful learning community.”

In an email, Biology professor Andrew A. Biewener wrote his reaction was one of “grave disappointment” but added that he was “not surprised given the biased make-up of SCOTUS these days and their political activism in turning over long-held and settled opinions.”

“Harvard will work hard, I am sure, to minimize the impact this will have on sustaining a diverse admissions program,” he wrote.

Government professor Danielle S. Allen, a University Professor and the outgoing director of the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Ethics, similarly said she felt the University “will be able to continue to unite the goals of excellence and inclusion” in an email.

“The time is here to embrace innovation in how we pursue inclusive excellence,” Allen wrote. “Talent is everywhere, and we need to turn the crank on our admissions methods and innovate to ensure we can see talent and accomplishment in its myriad forms.”

Brooks, the HKS professor, said that for Harvard, maintaining student body diversity “will be difficult under this ruling, but I hope not impossible.”

“If there is any institution that could do it, it would be Harvard,” Brooks added.

The majority opinion, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts ’76, ruled that universities could no longer utilize race-based preferences in admissions to increase diversity — the rationale the Court had accepted when it upheld affirmative action in the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

But Roberts wrote that admissions officers could still consider an individual applicant’s “discussion of how race affected the applicant’s life.”

Thomas J. Kane, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies affirmative action, wrote in an email that many commentators misunderstand the Bakke decision. Kane wrote that the 1978 decision only allows for affirmative action for the purpose of promoting diversity, not correcting historical racial injustice.

But Kane added the Court’s decision Thursday will allow schools to “address the ongoing impacts of racial bias on individual students today.”

“The decision took away the ‘diversity’ rationale, but it simultaneously handed Harvard a mandate with even greater moral force: recognizing the obstacles that students have overcome, whether they be physical, economic, social, gender OR race-based,” Kane wrote.

He said Harvard could consider an optional question on its application inviting applicants to describe how they have overcome obstacles, including obstacles related to race, or could pursue “need positive” admissions by giving a boost to low-income applicants.

Brooks said this caveat in the ruling shifts the “evidentiary burden” onto college applicants to “prove in an individualized way” their experience of racial inequality or discrimination.

“What do you choose? Do you say, ‘My school system has been segregated for thus or so many years’?” Brooks said. “No matter what you put in your admissions essay, there are 10 studies that state the obvious.”

Humanities professor Homi K. Bhabha said Roberts’ emphasis on specific applicants’ experiences of racial discrimination was “a completely individualistic view of how race affects a whole collective group of people, how race holds back the progress of a community.”

“What this judgment suggests is that any progress and achievement is really to be attributed to the individual, not to their collective history,” Bhabha said.

But at least one faculty member heralded the Court’s decision.

“It came as a pleasure — you could say a joy,” said Government professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, who retires from his professorship in just a few days. Mansfield said he believes diversity should mean “a diversity of viewpoint,” and affirmative action “is a kind of euphemism” for racial discrimination.

“The basis of the whole decision is a simple proposition that your mother tells you: Two wrongs don’t make a right,” he said. “You can’t eliminate discrimination by practicing it.”

Mansfield said that the reason Harvard has upheld affirmative action until this point is because the University wants “to make amends for the sad and sorry history of slavery and segregation.”

“That’s all right, but it means racial discrimination against those who weren’t Black,” Mansfield said.

“You want to admit people you admire, not people you feel sorry for,” he added.

Mansfield said Harvard’s mission “to bring together the best students in the country” was “diluted and not forwarded” by practicing affirmative action in its admissions.

“Harvard has been in a bubble, and now — suddenly — it’s pricked,” he said.

—Staff writer Ryan H. Doan-Nguyen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ryandoannguyen.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.