The Supreme Court Decision on Race-Conscious Admissions

To: The W&L Community
From: President Will Dudley
Date: June 30, 2023

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina “cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the Equal Protection Clause” of the Fourteenth Amendment.  I write today to address the implications of this ruling for Washington and Lee.

Our mission remains unchanged: “Washington and Lee University provides a liberal arts education that develops students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely, and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility.  Graduates will be prepared for lifelong learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.”

Our commitment to diversity, which is rooted in our mission, also remains unchanged.  We are a better educational institution in virtue of our students, faculty, and staff contributing a wide variety of perspectives and life experiences to our campus.  And our graduates are better prepared to lead lives of consequence in a diverse world in virtue of having been educated at a diverse university.  Striving to fulfill our mission to the very best of our ability, we will continue working to attract and support the success of an increasingly diverse community at W&L.

While the Supreme Court has not changed our goals, it has changed the legally permissible means by which we may pursue them.  We will comply fully with the law, and we will continue to evaluate applicants on the basis of a host of factors -- including their academic accomplishments, extracurricular talents, demonstrated leadership, and strength of character -- that are indicative of their ability to benefit from and contribute to the university.

Justice Lewis Powell -- one of the most distinguished alumni in the long history of Washington and Lee – wrote the 1978 decision that, until yesterday, allowed universities to consider race as one factor among others in admissions decisions.  Powell was prepared for his extraordinary legal career by his education at W&L, where Powell graduated first in his law school class of 1931, served as President of the Executive Committee of the Student Body, and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa as a member of the undergraduate class of 1929.

Powell forged a masterful compromise on a deeply divided court in The University of California Regents vs. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).  The case was brought by a white male applicant to the medical school of the University of California at Davis, who argued his rights were violated by the use of a quota system that set aside a fixed number of places in the entering class for minority applicants.  Powell joined four of his fellow justices in holding that racial quotas do indeed violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and therefore may not be used in college admissions.  But Powell also joined his other four fellow justices in holding that “the goal of achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race in admissions decisions under some circumstances” (Bakke, 267).  Specifically, the majority held that race could be deemed a positive factor in a holistic review of individual applicants, which is precisely what W&L and most other American colleges and universities have done for nearly half a century.

Justice Powell’s momentous decision was reaffirmed 25 years later by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  Writing for the majority in Grutter vs. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306, in 2003, O’Connor noted that “Public and private universities across the nation have modeled their own admissions programs on Justice Powell’s views on permissible race-conscious policies” (323) and declared that “the Court endorses Justice Powell’s view that student body diversity is a compelling state interest in the context of university admissions” (307).

Justice O’Connor emphasized, however, that a “core purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to do away with all governmentally imposed discrimination based on race,” and thus “race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time.”  She famously expressed the Court’s expectation that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today” (309-10).  In response to this prediction, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that “one may hope, but not firmly forecast, that over the next generation’s span, progress toward nondiscrimination and genuinely equal opportunity will make it safe to sunset affirmative action” (Grutter, 346).

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision impacts colleges and universities across the country whose admissions programs have been developed in light of Justice Powell’s ruling in Bakke. Washington and Lee will adjust our admissions policies and practices to be fully compliant with the newly reinterpreted law of the land. But we will never be dissuaded from our mission. Diversity of life experiences and perspectives makes us a better university, and we will continue using all legally permissible means to attract and support an increasingly diverse campus community in the pursuit of educational excellence.