The ruling against race-conscious admissions processes was expected from the majority conservative US Supreme Court.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

By:  Elizabeth Miller


Several leaders from public universities in Oregon shared their disappointment in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Thursday ruling against race-conscious college admissions practice.

“Oregon State University joins with higher education institutions across the nation in its disappointment with two U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued today related to the consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions,” said OSU president Jayathi Murthy in a statement Thursday.

Similar to other Oregon universities, OSU does not consider race in admissions decisions, but Murthy said leaders will be “actively engaged to understand what direct impact, if any, these rulings may have within Oregon State University.”

According to Murthy’s message, the university will share any new information related to the ruling on its website.

The court considered cases relating to admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. Its ruling reverses a decadeslong legacy that led to more diverse institutions of higher education nationwide. A March 2023 Georgetown University report found that an end to affirmative action would mean less racial and ethnic diversity at “selective colleges.”

Sabrina Sommer is a bilingual, bicultural equity specialist for the David Douglas School District in Portland, Oregon. Before taking that job last year, she worked as a David Douglas High School counselor for nine years.

Sommer, who said she benefited from affirmative action growing up, said that while she wasn’t surprised by the decision, it still stung.

“My heart dropped, that sense of grief around the impact it could have in our community, for our students,” Sommer said.

About 70% of David Douglas High School students are students of color. That includes students learning English, new to the country, and other students Sommer said could benefit from the “extra boost” of race-conscious admission.

“They are overcoming so many hurdles to even get through high school, to get that high school diploma, and then the next step to go to college is already another barrier,” she said. “And so trying to reduce those barriers is how we can see marginalized students get more access not just to education, [but] to all that that brings with it.”

Sommer said she’s optimistic that her district and Oregon universities will maintain support for students of color through efforts like Oregon Promise, which covers the first two years of community college for recent high school graduates.

“There will be lots of ways to keep supporting our students, and I think we’ll just need to leverage that and help our staff identify what those resources that are still available are,” she said.

But she said Thursday’s ruling could also bring a feeling of fear for communities of color.

“It’s not just about the higher education, it represents something that has been sort of happening in different ways across our systems,” she said. “The support for marginalized communities is always limited.”

Impact of decision on higher education in Oregon

In its statement, Portland State University noted that it serves more racially diverse students than Oregon’s other public universities, but it does not use race as a basis for admission decisions.

“PSU […] is taking intentional action – what we believe to be essential and affirmative action – to work toward a society in which students who have been historically disadvantaged and discriminated against can thrive,” the statement reads.

While OSU, PSU and the University of Oregon acknowledged the importance of being inclusive in who they admit regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, the leaders also expressed concern about how the court’s decision will impact future students.

“The University of Oregon shares the concerns of our university peers across the nation that this ruling will impact the ability of underrepresented students to access the benefits of higher education,” read UO’s statement on the ruling.

As NPR noted, Thursday’s decision could have an effect on admissions practices in other institutions, including exclusive elementary or high schools, or other academic programs.

Oregon’s private higher education institutions also weighed in on Thursday’s ruling. Lewis & Clark president Robin Holmes-Sullivan shared a message with students and staff noting that “diversity is a strength.” She said the school will continue to follow all federal laws and guidelines.

“Interacting with people from all kinds of different backgrounds is an important aspect of students’ preparation to live, work, and lead in an increasingly diverse society,” she wrote. “This fall we are excited to welcome the most ethnically diverse group of undergraduate students in LC’s history.”

Politicians representing Oregon in Congress also shared statements Thursday.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, pointed out that other factors in college admissions remain in place.

“It is a tragedy that we will now likely see a significant drop in the enrollment of Black and Latino students at elite universities,” Bonamici said in her statement, “and it is disingenuous for the Supreme Court to block race-conscious admissions with the misguided presumption of colorblindness while admissions practices that favor students from privileged backgrounds, including legacy admissions and admissions for family members of wealthy donors, are allowed to continue.”

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said he was the first in his family to go to college.

“I know the struggles facing students whose parents have never been through the process before or don’t have the money for expensive test prep or advisors to help them craft the perfect essay,” Merkley said. “In addition, diversity on campuses enriches the educational experience for all students and can help our nation counter the injustices that flow from ongoing systemic racial discrimination.”

Merkley said he and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-New York, plan to reintroduce the Fair College Admissions for Students Act, a bill first introduced in 2022, which would prohibit universities from factoring in a student’s relationship to alumni or donors into admission.