Affirmative action brought down by Supreme Court

President Kornbluth: “These decisions represent a turning point for our nation”  

On June 29, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, ruling that race-conscious admissions processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina were unconstitutional. In a video to the MIT community on July 1, President Sally Kornbluth said she wanted to "express my profound frustration with these decisions." She added that such an action "threatens our mission."


Upending Precedent

Before this ruling, the Supreme Court had upheld affirmative action policies, albeit with slight majorities. In 1978, the Court said that considering an applicant's race through an affirmative action program was a viable factor in building a diverse class, similar to characteristics such as an applicant's geography or scholastic achievement. In 2003, the Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of such a program.

With its current conservative supermajority, the Court was split along ideological lines, ruling 6-3 and 6-2 in the University of North Carolina and Harvard cases, respectively. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself in the Harvard decision.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that "many universities have for too long… 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." Justice Clarence Thomas added that current university admission policies "fly in the face of our colorblind Constitution."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the dissent that the Court's decision "subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society." Justice Jackson said, "Deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life."


President Kornbluth’s Response 

On June 7, President Kornbluth sent an email to the MIT community anticipating the decision, stating that "we expect the ruling to pose a serious challenge to sustaining, in future classes, the diverse mix of undergraduate and graduate students who make MIT the place it is today."

Kornbluth wrote that her inauguration demonstrated to her "the simple reality that MIT has never been more excellent-and never more diverse." Later on, she wrote that "every MIT student brings their own life experiences that enrich the education of all students, and every student is a valued and important member of our community." Thus, Kornbluth states that MIT ought to "do whatever we can, within the bounds of the law, to keep our doors open to this full breadth of human talent."

In her video address, Kornbluth echoed her previous statements: "MIT has never been more excellent and has never been more diverse and I see these factors as inextricably intertwined."

In the aftermath of the decision, Kornbluth cited the ruling as threatening the Institute's ability to "prepare the next generation of leaders for our multi-racial society." She stated that "these decisions represent a turning point for our nation" and added that "we need to take a step back and decide how to address the racial and economic inequalities that still persist in our society."

                                                                                                                                                               An impact on and off campus

The decision has broad implications beyond the college admissions landscape. President Kornbluth wrote in her June 7 email that "the decision may also affect a range of programs and services beyond admissions." In an NPR interview, Harvard co-counsel Bill Lee said that the ruling will "open a Pandora's box across the country and across institutions and industries."

The ruling will likely impact selective high schools, including Boston Latin, Thomas Jefferson, and Stuyvesant. Such schools have recently been a source of controversy following measures to diversify the student body.


An uncertain future

In her email and video communications, Kornbluth reiterated the necessity for MIT to obey the law while also continuing efforts to promote diversity on campus. Kornbluth wrote, "We will do everything within the law that we can to sustain the MIT community as we know it."

Kornbluth underscored the importance of education, saying that "I know that education is the most... powerful way for individuals to change their circumstances," but added that in light of the Court's decision, "we need to reimagine how we educate our whole population, so everyone has a fair shot."

She concluded her video message with the following note: "I am working closely with faculty and administrative leaders to understand the decision fully, and we will dedicate ourselves to maintaining the diverse and inclusive environment that we have worked so hard to build."