Affirmative Action Ruling Highlights Pivotal Role of HBCUs, Hall Says

UVI’s Class of 2023 graduates at this year’s commencement. (Photo courtesy of UVI)

The U.S. Supreme Court’s striking blow Thursday to two college affirmative action programs could present an opportunity for Historically Black Colleges and Universities to “step up” and play a pivotal role in increasing educational access for students of color, according to University of the Virgin Islands President David Hall.

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision centered on two lawsuits brought by Students for Fair Admissions challenging admissions practices at Harvard and UNC, saying that those schools discriminated against Asian American and white applicants. Still, by invalidating their admissions policies, the Supreme Court, in its opinion, could force a shift in how many of the nation’s private and public universities select their students as race is ruled out as a factor.

“In doing so, the court scrapped decades of precedent, including a ruling dating to 1978, that upheld a limited consideration of race in university admissions to combat historic discrimination against Black people and other minority groups,” according to an NBC News article.

Speaking to the Source Thursday, Hall concurred that any Supreme Court decision has wide-reaching effects.

“Most legal scholars would argue that this is a blow to affirmative action and that the natural consequences are that there will be fewer African Americans and other students of color in higher education — especially the more top-tier schools, and I think that’s unfortunate,” he said. “It is again one of those situations where the court is trying to create a color-blind model for a society that is not color-blind, a society where the legacy of slavery and discrimination have not been uprooted, so they still have an impact on the lives of people. Now it’s going to be harder to bring about the type of equality and equity that so many of us are striving for.”

Immediate Impact

Writing for the conservative members of the majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. contended that “the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual — not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have 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. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

The internet Thursday was rife with analyses on the immediate impact of the court’s opinion — and Roberts’ words — though the general consensus was that colleges would now be hesitant to use race-based formulas in the admission process and instead search for substitute criteria that may or may not yield the same results.

It’s ironic, said Hall, when affirmative action was, in its inception, the tool used by universities to bring about the kind of diversity that is so valued by colleges and universities across the nation.

“It’s not that they have been achieving it automatically, and this goes back to an issue that we don’t want to always talk about — institutions of higher learning using scores because many still use SATs, LSATs and other standardized tests to drive their admission process. The reason affirmative action became a tool in the first place is because historically, and to the present day, African Americans, as one group for example, have not received the same type of opportunities and resources so their scores in general don’t end up being the same. Just on the scores you aren’t going to be fair.”

Finding alternate or more creative criteria, such as economics, may offer the same result, he added.

“There will be some creativity among institutions now to see if they can achieve the same goal without violating the court’s opinion,” Hall said.

Across the country, nine states have already passed laws or referendums that bar affirmative action in public universities, which, according to research, has resulted in a decline in admission rates for Black and Hispanic students. In California, those bans were also passed down through the public education system, causing deeper and longer-lasting results.

The Role of HBCUs

Hall said students of color shouldn’t feel discouraged when applying to college but should think about casting a wider net when looking at schools.

“I think we would say to students based on this decision, you may want to broaden the number of institutions you apply to so that you may have more options that you have in the past,” Hall said. “Students should shoot for the stars always, but this decision says you are going to have to be a little more realistic about how you’re going to get that star.”

The silver lining, he added, is that HBCUs now have the chance to play a more pivotal role in offering educational access and options, which is what they were originally created for.

“It’s even more important now for us to fulfill the purpose that we have always had and that is to create for students of color, who don’t have options in other places — and historically that option was not available because universities would not admit individuals who were African American — a meaningful space for learning and enlightenment,” he said.

But the question of whether HBCUs are going to be supported in this mission — so that they can offer students who may not have gotten into the more selective schools the same quality of resources — remains.

“We would have to be supported from a resource standpoint so that we can fulfill our mission in a proper way. The type of resources that a student would have obtained at Harvard, for example, should be the same they are receiving at UVI, or Morehouse, or any other HBCU,” Hall said.

Resources can range from the types of facilities a school offers, to the diversity of degree offerings, and while Hall said UVI is still evolving, it still offers a comparable and rigorous program.

“With the resources we have, we do an outstanding job and if we can obtain more, we can do more,” Hall said. “Both the students who want to be here and those who end up here because of different reasons will benefit from the education we offer and the experience we provide.”