The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down affirmative action admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, undoing decades of precedent in a ruling that will have wide-ranging implications for academia and a potentially broad swath of the workforce.The court's conservative majority largely telegraphed the ruling during five hours of oral arguments last October, during which they suggested they might steer schools toward certain "race-neutral" alternatives when compiling their admissions classes.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. authored the majority opinion, which broke 6-3 along partisan lines. He wrote that the admissions policies used by Harvard and UNC run afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.
"[N]othing prohibits universities from considering an applicant's discussion of how race affected the applicant's life, so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university," the chief justice wrote.
"Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual's identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "This nation's constitutional history does not tolerate that choice."
The nation's oldest private and public universities were both sued in 2014 by the group Students for Fair Admissions. SFFA's leader, legal strategist Ed Blum, has steered several affirmative action suits to the high court and finally achieved his goal of overruling the court's 2003 holding in Grutter v. Bollinger .
"The opinion issued today by the United States Supreme Court marks the beginning of the restoration of the colorblind legal covenant that binds together our multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation," Blum said in a statement. "Ending racial preferences in college admissions is an outcome that the vast majority of all races and ethnicities will celebrate. A university doesn't have real diversity when it simply assembles students who look different but come from similar backgrounds and act, talk, and think alike."
UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a statement of his own that the school "remains firmly committed to bringing together talented students with different perspectives and life experiences and continues to make an affordable, high-quality education accessible to the people of North Carolina and beyond."
"While not the outcome we hoped for, we will carefully review the Supreme Court's decision and take any steps necessary to comply with the law," Guskiewicz said.
Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said that the school will "certainly comply with the court's decision."
"Harvard will continue to be a vibrant community whose members come from all walks of life, all over the world," Bacow said. "We write today to reaffirm the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences. That principle is as true and important today as it was yesterday."
The Grutter decision allowed for the use of race in the admissions process as long as it was used in a narrowly tailored way as a "plus factor," and the schools argued throughout the case that race was never held against prospective students during the admissions process. But Chief Justice Roberts said the school's argument that race "is never a negative factor in their admissions programs cannot withstand scrutiny."
"College admissions are zero sum, and a benefit provided to some applicants but not to others necessarily advantages the former at the expense of the latter," Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent that the limited use of race has helped level the playing field for students of all backgrounds and improved diversity on college campuses, echoing arguments made by the schools.
"Today, this court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress," Justice Sotomayor wrote. "This court overrules decades of precedent and imposes a superficial rule of race blindness on the nation. The devastating impact of this decision cannot be overstated. The majority's vision of race neutrality will entrench racial segregation in higher education because racial inequality will persist so long as it is ignored."
A few words penned by former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in the Grutter decision seemed to foretell Thursday's opinion. In upholding the use of affirmative action, Justice O'Connor added a self-imposed expiration date, writing, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary."
"Twenty years have passed since Grutter, with no end to race-based college admissions in sight," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "But the court has permitted race based college admissions only within the confines of narrow restrictions: Such admissions programs must comply with strict scrutiny, may never use race as a stereotype or negative, and must — at some point — end."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh dismissed the notion that former Justice O'Connor's deadline was merely aspirational.
"Indeed, four of the separate opinions in Grutter discussed the majority opinion's 25-year limit, which belies any suggestion that the court's reference to it was insignificant or not carefully considered," Justice Kavanaugh wrote.
The decision overturns a trio of lower court wins for the two schools. Harvard won a 2018 bench trial and the ruling was upheld by the First Circuit in 2020. UNC also won at the district court level, but the case bypassed the appellate circuit on its way to the top court.
Both universities defended their admissions policies as being necessary to achieve diverse classes and the benefits that flow from that diversity. The Biden administration also backed the schools, arguing that universities still have a compelling interest in diverse classes, even two decades after Grutter.
The Trump administration had previously backed SFFA, but the federal government reversed course when the administration changed.
The majority opinion found that the benefits touted by the schools to justify their admissions programs, including better educating students through diversity and "training future leaders" are too vague to survive the constitutional challenges brought by SFFA.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that "both experience and logic have vindicated the Constitution's colorblind rule and confirmed that the universities' new narrative cannot stand."
"Despite the court's hope in Grutter that universities would voluntarily end their race conscious programs and further the goal of racial equality, the opposite appears increasingly true," Justice Thomas wrote. "Harvard and UNC now forthrightly state that they racially discriminate when it comes to admitting students, arguing that such discrimination is consistent with this court's precedents. And they, along with today's dissenters, defend that discrimination as good."
The Supreme Court's liberal wing agreed with the universities, again largely following what they had said during oral arguments. Justice Sotomayor cited the high court's landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education , which ended school segregation.
"This limited use of race has helped equalize educational opportunities for all students of every race and background and has improved racial diversity on college campuses," Justice Sotomayor wrote. "Although progress has been slow and imperfect, race-conscious college admissions policies have advanced the Constitution's guarantee of equality and have promoted Brown's vision of a nation with more inclusive schools."
In the underlying suits, SFFA accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian American applicants through a subjective "personal rating" in which SFFA claimed racial bias resulted in a lower score.
The organization claimed UNC ran afoul of the 14th Amendment by giving preference to underrepresented minorities to the detriment of white and Asian American students.
Prior to Grutter, the high court had initially blessed the use of race in the admissions process in its 1978 holding in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke .
Bakke banned racial quotas but allowed race to be considered in the admissions process and, until Thursday, the court had tackled and largely affirmed that precedent, including in its 2016 holding in Fisher v. University of Texas , another case brought by Blum.
The cases are Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard, case number 20-1199, and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina et al., case number 21-707, in the Supreme Court of the United States.