Amherst College takes lead on Supreme Court brief backing race as factor in admissions

  • Johnson Chapel on the Amherst College quad. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, August 08, 2022

AMHERST — Citing a compelling interest in having a racially diverse student body, Amherst College on Tuesday filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the legality of a race-conscious admissions process.

With Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill facing challenges to their use of racial preferences in admissions from a group calling itself Students for Fair Admissions, Amherst College initiated and coordinated the filing of the brief, which explains the educational benefits of diversity and how race is used as one component of many in what the college calls a “holistic consideration” of each application.

Amherst was joined in the filing of the brief by 32 other colleges and universities, including Smith College, Mount Holyoke College and Hampshire College.

The brief filed in SFFA v. Harvard University and SFFA v. UNC-Chapel Hill cases argues that a race-conscious admissions process is consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School.

“Studies consistently show that diversity — including racial diversity — meaningfully improves learning experiences, complex thinking and non-cognitive abilities,” the brief reads. “Diversity also generates pedagogical innovations and decreases prejudice. These benefits are especially pronounced at liberal arts colleges and small universities, where smaller class sizes lead to greater engagement among diverse students.”

Should the Supreme Court overturn Grutter, the brief warns that this “would deal a powerful blow against Amici’s [the signatories to the brief] effort to assemble diverse student bodies.”

On Monday, 82 corporations signed similar amicus briefs. Those companies, including Apple, Google and Starbucks, argue that racial and ethnic diversity positively benefits the experience of college students and leads to more diverse workplaces and better business performance.

Amherst College President Michael A. Elliott, who began his tenure this week, said in a statement that the college has made great strides in recent decades to enroll, educate and graduate a highly diverse student body.

“Prohibiting the consideration of race in admissions decisions would result in greater inequity, both on college campuses and in American society — and it would substantially impair the ability of institutions to educate students to become the citizens and leaders that a diverse democracy requires,” Elliott said.

He added that the college’s admissions practices have served students well, and the public at large also benefits.

“Therefore, we felt that it was critical to express our full support of a holistic admission process, including the holistic consideration of race and ethnicity as one of many factors, to the Court, as well as the general public,” Elliott said.

In the Harvard case, Students for Fair Admissions is arguing that affirmative action rules discriminate against Asian-American students; while in the North Carolina case, the group claims that Asian-American and white students are discriminated against in favor of Black and Latino applicants.

For many years, Amherst College has considered each applicant’s academic accomplishments, extracurricular activities, family background, potential and race. This year, 51% of the entering class self-identifies as domestic students of color, and an additional 12% are international students. In addition, the college has eliminated use of legacy preference in admissions.

“When the admission committee reviews applications, we consider each student as a whole student, with all of their identities, as we seek to build a class that will live and learn together,” Matthew L. McGann, the college’s dean of Admission and Financial Aid, said in a statement. “In American society, race remains as salient as ever, and denying students an opportunity to share parts of their identity denies them an opportunity to be seen as their whole, true selves.”