Five Colleges weigh in on affirmative action case

  • Amherst College students in The Science Center Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Amherst College students in The Science Center. Shown above, Martin Wilkinson and Kofi Hope-Gund, students at Amherst College, in the quad. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Shown above, Martin Wilkinson and Kofi Hope-Gund, students at Amherst College, in the quad. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Martin Wilkinson and Kofi Hope-Gund, students at Amherst College, in the quad Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

Staff Writer
Published: 10/4/2019 4:51:15 PM
Modified: 10/4/2019 4:51:02 PM

AMHERST — Local college officials voiced support for a federal court’s decision to allow colleges and universities to continue to consider race as a factor in the admissions process, upholding affirmative action.

“Amherst welcomes and applauds the court’s decision, which affirms the importance and constitutionality of race-conscious admissions as part of a holistic review of applicants to our colleges and universities,” Amherst College President Biddy Martin said in a statement. “Our society depends for its well being on the identification and development of talent wherever it exists. It exists in every community and group.”

In the lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions — a group holding “that racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional” — argues that Asian American students applying to Harvard University were held to an unfair standard due to their race. The case challenged past court decisions that determined colleges and universities may consider race as a factor in admissions, although they may not use racial quotas.

On Tuesday, Federal District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs issued a decision finding that Asian Americans are admitted to Harvard at a lower rate than white students but concluded that the university’s admissions policy “survives strict scrutiny” established in previous court cases. 

“It serves a compelling, permissible and substantial interest,” Burroughs wrote of the policy, “and it is necessary and narrowly tailored to achieve diversity and the academic benefits that flow from diversity.”

Burroughs also stressed the importance of diversity in educational environments.

“The students who are admitted to Harvard and choose to attend will live and learn surrounded by all sorts of people, with all sorts of experiences, beliefs and talents,” Burroughs wrote. “They will have the opportunity to know and understand one another beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences.” 

In today’s world, Burroughs added that “race-conscious admissions programs that survive strict scrutiny will have an important place in society and help ensure that colleges and universities can offer a diverse atmosphere that fosters learning, improves scholarship, and encourages mutual respect and understanding.”

While the decision was a relief for supporters of affirmative action, the case may resurface in a higher court: Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admission, said in a statement that the group intends to “appeal this decision to the First Court of Appeals and, if necessary, to the U.S Supreme Court.”

Local reaction

Officials at Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Smith College welcomed the decision.

In her statement, Martin said that the ruling is “a particularly important decision for Amherst, as we are one of the most diverse institutions of our kind in the country and are widely recognized as a trailblazer in assembling the incredibly diverse student population we have today.”

Forty-five percent of Amherst College students self-identified as persons of color during the 2018-2019 academic year, and this figure “has held steady for the past couple of years,” Martin said.

Matt McGann, dean of Admission and Financial Aid at Amherst College, also agreed with Burroughs’ ruling, which he said will continue to allow colleges to foster “a more just and equitable society” while “educating students that better reflect of the diversity of the country and the world.”

Students come to Amherst College to “seek an excellent education in the liberal arts,” McGann said, “and we strongly believe that this education is enhanced with students that bring a variety of experiences to the classroom, so I applaud this decision.”

Amherst also takes a “whole person approach” to reviewing applications, McGann said.

“Each decision is carefully considered and never based on one factor,” McGann said. “It is never reducing students to just a set of numbers, like grades or scores. It’s not reducing a student to any demographic factor.

“It’s really thinking deeply to assemble a community,” he added, where students can learn from their classmates and campus happenings. 

Audrey Smith, vice president for enrollment at Smith College, commended Burroughs’ decision as well-reasoned and appropriate.

“I think that having a robust discussion in the classroom with people with a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints enhances the learning of all students,” Smith said, adding that Smith College is “deeply committed to having a socioeconomically, racially, geographically, religiously” diverse and inclusive campus.

In the 2018-2019 academic year, about one-third of Smith students identified as persons of color, not counting international students who make up 13.9 percent of the class. 

In the Smith College admissions process, Smith said that the college, like Harvard, takes a holistic approach with each potential student. Race is “never the defining factor,” she said, and “academics are the most important factor of the decision” in accepting new students. 

But, she added, “if we’re interested in their academic experience and their social experience and the environment in which they’ve grown up, which they’ve learned, how can we possibly ignore race, which is for many students a very important aspect of their identity?”

In a statement to the Gazette, a UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said that “the federal court decision reflects support for the widely supported process within higher education, including at UMass Amherst, that admissions decisions are made using a holistic review process to carefully consider applicants in an individualized context.

“In that holistic review, race is not a determining factor but it can be one of many factors taken into account in determining whether to admit an applicant,” Blaguszewski continued. “We believe such a holistic review helps our university create a diverse and valuable learning environment.”

At UMass, 29 percent of undergraduate students and 27 percent of graduate students identify as Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic or Latino or two or more races, according to the university’s website.

Officials at Mount Holyoke and Hampshire colleges did not provide comment on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, and Holyoke Community College uses an open admissions policy, which allows any student with a high school diploma, GED or HiSET high school equivalency certificate, or who has completed an approved home school program, to attend.

Smith said that the conversation surrounding the case is not over in higher education or in the country as a whole but added that everyone benefits “to the extent that we can understand and appreciate one another and appreciate our similarities and differences.”

“It’s really great that we can offer our students the opportunity to work together in diverse teams in college,” Smith said, “because that’s what they’re going to be experiencing in their life.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at 

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