Affirmative Action Ban Would Limit Faculty Diversity

People of color already are vastly underrepresented among the faculty ranks, and the situation could become much worse if SCOTUS bans affirmative action.
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  • The Supreme Court's upcoming decisions on affirmative action could have implications for graduate school admissions, not just undergraduate.
  • Fewer graduate students of color means fewer faculty of color for years to come.
  • Experts predict a dramatic effect on graduate student diversity in the short term but are optimistic enrollments will somewhat recover.
  • The University of California's recent history with an affirmative action ban illustrates the challenges universities nationwide might face.

As the higher education community braces itself in anticipation of the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions on affirmative action, likely to be issued in June, much debate focuses on the possible implications for undergraduate admissions and student diversity.

But amid the various speculations, scant attention has been paid to the potential effects on graduate admissions and the future professoriate. What could happen to faculty diversity and the teaching and learning environment across our nation's colleges and universities?

California's story remains a cautionary tale.

Supreme Court Decisions and Graduate Admissions

The two cases in question — Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard and the University of North Carolina — pertain specifically to the consideration of race in undergraduate admissions. Yet the Supreme Court doesn't necessarily differentiate between admissions at the undergraduate and graduate levels in its opinions.

Precedent suggests the lines are blurred. In Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the 1978 landmark case on affirmative action, the court deliberated on medical school admissions. And while the 2003 Gratz v. Bollinger case centered on the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions, its companion case, Grutter v. Bollinger, involved Michigan's law school.

In fact, several times during the Harvard case, counsel invoked the court's presumed 25-year statute of limitations on affirmative action, referencing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's expectations set forth in her majority opinion in Grutter.

So the decisions issued next June will have a direct bearing on admissions at every level within the university. That includes professional schools such as law, business, and medical, along with master's and doctoral programs across all academic programs.

Banning Affirmative Action Reduces Graduate Student Diversity

If SCOTUS bans affirmative action, as some are predicting, what are the possible repercussions for graduate admissions and faculty diversity?

A 2012 study by The Civil Rights Project titled "The Impact of Affirmative Action Bans in Graduate Education" found that minority enrollment had decreased in states that passed laws prohibiting affirmative action.

In toto, public universities in Washington, California, Florida, and Texas experienced a 12% decline in graduate students of color. Some fields were impacted more severely than others. Minority engineering enrollments declined by 26%. Natural science enrollments dropped by 19%; those in the social sciences, by almost 16%.

It's safe to assume a SCOTUS decision banning affirmative action would have a similar impact on graduate education nationwide.

"There is no doubt that, in the short term, it will have really serious consequences for enrollment of precisely the groups whose perspectives and viewpoints are critical to our success," Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, told BestColleges.

Ortega defines "short term" as 12-18 months, during which she believes an affirmative action ban would have a "discernible effect" on graduate student diversity. Beyond that time frame, she said, we might expect a "rebound and recovery."

Her optimism stems in part from the way graduate students are admitted.

Graduate admissions differs significantly from undergraduate admissions, Ortega explained. With undergraduates, universities think in terms of building cohorts, or classes, that figuratively check all the boxes in terms of student diversity — racial, gender, geographic, academic, athletic, and so forth.

Graduate enrollment deals with much smaller numbers, so there's even more emphasis on an individual, holistic assessment of one's ability to persevere and succeed as a graduate student and less focus, relatively speaking, on quantitative data.

A 2016 Council of Graduate Schools report on holistic admissions points out that this practice helps universities jettison some of the barriers underrepresented students face.

Prioritizing "noncognitive" and personal attributes, the report states, addresses the "well-justified concern that undue weight on quantitative measures of student merit such as standardized test scores and GPA may not accurately predict success in graduate school, and may disadvantage underrepresented, non-traditional and older students."

Ortega said universities will figure out how to achieve graduate student diversity goals "within the constraints of the Supreme Court."

"We'll find ways to continue to advance the diversity and inclusion agenda because it's the morally right thing to do," she said, "and it's the educationally sound thing to do."

California Struggles to Maintain Diversity Following Prop 209

Universities in California have been finding creative ways to advance that agenda since 1996, when the state passed Proposition 209, banning the consideration of race — and gender — at public institutions.

Lisa Garcia Bedolla, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate Division at the University of California, Berkeley, told BestColleges Proposition 209 had a "very dramatic effect" on graduate student diversity at the outset.

"The numbers went down significantly," she said, "largely because it signaled that the University of California wasn't friendly to minority students."

On the flip side of that coin, Garcia Bedolla pointed out, Proposition 209 heightened awareness around the purpose and value of diversity on campus.

"The positive thing that came out of 209 was that it forced the faculty to have a conversation about diversity," she said. "What is diversity? Why do we care about it? How does it relate to our mission? How does it relate to the production of knowledge?"

These are questions to which Justice Clarence Thomas sought answers during the SFFA v. University of North Carolina oral arguments.

"I've heard the word 'diversity' quite a few times," he said, "and I don't have a clue what it means."

Garcia Bedolla knows exactly what diversity means and why it's important as a pedagogical tool.

"The reason it matters is because we want our classrooms to reflect the full diversity of humanity," she said. "We want our classrooms to reflect the full range of possible interpretations … because we all see things a little bit differently, because we have a lens that comes out of our personal histories."

That's why faculty diversity is equally critical, Garcia Bedolla contends. At the same time, Proposition 209 prohibits the consideration of race not only in admissions but also in faculty hiring. Garcia Bedolla said the university has "a lot of work to do on the faculty front" with respect to diversity goals.

As of 2017, nearly 70% of tenured professors across the University of California system were white, compared to only 26% of students. Nationwide, 74% of faculty in 2020 were white, as were 41% of students.

"It's really important for the people who are producing knowledge on college campuses to reflect the full range of humans who exist in the world," Garcia Bedolla said.

Getting there, especially in light of Proposition 209 and a potential SCOTUS decision banning affirmative action, remains the challenge. The Berkeley campus still suffers from lingering effects of the "symbolic" value of an affirmative action ban that leaves minority students feeling unwelcome, Garcia Bedolla said.

"It took a long time for us to recover from it," she said. "The numbers have improved, but we are still definitely well below parity."

Like Ortega, Garcia Bedolla remains optimistic that universities nationwide would eventually find ways to ensure graduate student diversity in the face of SCOTUS-mandated restrictions. One short-term challenge would be to ensure compliance across departments given the decentralized structure Ortega described. With each department acting as its own admissions office, universities will have to train faculty after defining the "parameters of what is permissible," Garcia Bedolla said.

Timing, however, could become an issue. A June SCOTUS decision gives universities roughly six months to define and codify such parameters before applications would be read and decisions made.

Ideally, Garcia Bedolla suggested, any changes would be implemented by the time applications go live in September "because you probably want to have a new set of prompts that you're asking students to answer as part of your admissions process," she said.

Similar prompts likely would appear on undergraduate applications as well to avoid narrowing the pipeline at its origin. As Garcia Bedolla explained, fewer undergraduate students of color results in fewer potential graduate students of color, which in turn means fewer faculty of color.

"It's an ecosystem," she said.

Upsetting that ecosystem by restricting the consideration of race in graduate admissions could have serious repercussions for teaching and learning and the production of knowledge. At the very least, it would limit the impact of influential role models for generations to come.

"What I've heard from students my whole career is it matters to them just to see me in front of the classroom," Garcia Bedolla said, "to know that somebody like them who comes from a family like theirs had the ability to live this life and have this profession."