“Perfect 2400 SAT. All 5 on AP. One B in 11th.”
“Heck no. Asian.”
“Of course. Still impressive.”
This online chat between admissions officers reflects poorly on the culture and policies of the university employing them. It shows them engaging in crude racial classification. The obvious implication is that while high test scores and grades would make a “brown” applicant stand out, such performance is “of course” more expected from an Asian applicant, although in this case perfect scores on both SAT and AP exams were “still impressive.”
I’m embarrassed to say that the employer of those admissions officers was my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The transcript of their online chat became evidence in a discrimination lawsuit filed against UNC in 2014 by a group called Students for Fair Admissions.
I’m also embarrassed to admit that other public universities in my native state also discriminate by race and ethnicity, just as Chapel Hill does, by admitting students with markedly weaker scores and other credentials if they are members of “under-represented minorities” — that is, if they are “brown” rather than white or Asian.
If you share my embarrassment about this, I’m pleased to report some good news: the UNC system may soon find its way back to a just and honorable admissions policy and thus regain some of the moral authority it has surrendered. That is, UNC may lose its case.
Students for Fair Admissions has two active lawsuits challenging racial preferences, one at UNC-Chapel Hill (the nation’s oldest public university) and the other at Harvard University (the nation’s oldest private university). The U.S. Supreme Court has now accepted and combined both cases for consideration during its next term, which begins this fall.
Lower courts sided with UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard. But if I were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet on the same result from the Supreme Court. I doubt a majority of the justices would have agreed to take these cases unless they intended at least to narrow considerably the conditions under which admissions departments can take race or ethnicity into account.
Indeed, the Court granted cert in the UNC-Chapel Hill case even though it had only proceeded as far as the federal district court. In October, Judge Loretta Biggs ruled against the plaintiffs in the case, concluding that UNC’s practices were consistent with precedent. Students for Fair Admissions asked the justices to bypass the Court of Appeals, in part so the UNC-Chapel Hill case could be combined with and argued alongside the Harvard case.
It wasn’t that long ago, in 2016, that the Supreme Court upheld racial preferences in a case involving the University of Texas. But that was a 4-3 decision. The composition of the Court has shifted since then. And Chief Justice John Roberts, who sometimes sides with the Court’s Democratic appointees for institutional or prudential reasons, seems implacably opposed to the continued use of racial preference as a remedy for past injustices, calling it “a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.”
For example, in a 2007 opinion about race-conscious student assignment among public schools in Seattle and Louisville, Roberts wrote that in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, “schoolchildren were told where they could and could not go to school based on the color of their skin. The school districts in these cases have not carried the heavy burden of demonstrating that we should allow this once again — even for very different reasons.”
He’s right about this issue. The case against UNC-Chapel Hill’s policy is overwhelming. Race isn’t just a “plus factor” used to break a few ties here or there. The plaintiffs presented compelling evidence that Asian students with stellar high-school careers are being rejected even as other minority students with much-lower grades and scores are being accepted.
In other words, UNC-Chapel Hill systematically denies admission to hard-working young people because they are the “wrong” color. It’s time to end this abhorrent practice.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.