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The EMG Perspective

It's All About Access: SCOTUS Got It Wrong, But There's Still Hope
By Joelle Murchison

I am not surprised by the Supreme Court's ruling gutting Affirmative Action. It may be unsurprising that I disagree with the Court ruling that institutions of higher learning may not consider race in admissions decisions.


For months those of us with connections to academic institutions have been talking about and thinking about solutions to maintain the high commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the face of this decision. From my vantage point as a DEI practitioner, access remains the central issue.


Chief Justice Roberts asserts in his opinion, "The student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, 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 is focused on the wrong issue. 


This decision discounts an important historical fact: barriers that prevent members of underrepresented groups access to higher education existed and continue to exist at every turn, often because of the color of skin. This is why Affirmative Action is needed – to counter those barriers, which include but are not limited to access to inherited wealth, the value of who you know, and bias among decision-makers.


Over the decades university campuses have thrived because of the multitude of students from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. As a result, we know unequivocally that it is NOT at all simply the color of an individual's skin, rather the depth and breadth of experiences that impacts our ability to learn, grow, and thrive together on university campuses. 


The simple thought that the color of one’s skin would be used as the single most important factor in college admission is offensive to someone like me, a first-generation college student, and a very proud woman of African American descent who attended two Ivy League institutions. I am confident that I was not admitted because of the color of my skin. And even if that were the case as to why my application was reviewed, it is certainly not responsible for my successful matriculation and graduation! What the prior Supreme Court decisions made possible is for me to have opportunities because those institutions reduced barriers to access. 


Because my alma mater made a commitment in the 1970s to support its growing Black student body by hiring a young African American minister, who years later was able to recommend that institution to me. My admission and subsequent matriculation at Brown changed my life and expanded the opportunities available to me. Without the connection I had to a former Brown employee, I would not have known the university existed. My awareness about Brown was not about the color of my skin, but rather about connections and access.


If as a result of the Court’s decision our institutions are unable to provide access universally to students across a variety of racial, ethnic, geographic, and other diverse backgrounds, we will have failed to honor our commitment to providing equitable access to higher education.


Students who are members of underrepresented groups unequivocally have everything that it takes to compete. It is not the color of their skin that provides the expertise, skill, and know-how to attend, work in, help guide, and transform institutions of higher education. Removing barriers to access remains paramount.


Prior decisions around Affirmative Action in our country's history were intended to ensure that those barriers were reduced. Today the Supreme Court has sadly taken a step in the wrong direction. I, however, remain confident that individuals who are members of underrepresented racial groups will continue to thrive and succeed despite the barriers the Court majority seems to think have disappeared.


My hope is that we discover new opportunities to acknowledge that access is still the issue. If institutions can provide access universally to individuals regardless of their background, we still can create the diverse communities that we know allow us all to thrive and compete on the world stage. 


By Joelle Murchison with Judy Hartling

An answer to the opinion “What if Diversity Trainings are More Harm than Good,” Jesse Singal, New York Times, January 17, 2023

click below to read the full response
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