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Tue July 2, 2013

How The Supreme Court's Affirmative Action Ruling Affects Local Colleges

Brandeis University President Frederick Lawrence site in his office beneath a photo of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
Credit Kirk Carapezza / WGBH

A week after the Supreme Court issued a ruling calling for tougher scrutiny of colleges’ race-conscious admissions policies, small liberal arts schools in New England hoping to boost their minority enrollment are worried about potential legal challenges.

Administrators are eagerly waiting to see what happens in the lower courts. Since the Supreme Court decision, schools like Brandeis University have been asking one vital question:

“Is the court really going to make the standard so hard to meet that it becomes almost impossible?” asked Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence.

Lawrence sits in his office on the Waltham campus. A black-and-white picture of progressive Justice Louis Brandeis rests on his bookshelf.

Like the university’s founder, Lawrence is a civil rights lawyer. He’s also a singer, so we asked him what song was running through his head when he heard the Court’s decision.

“’It don’t mean a thing, if it don’t got that swing,’" he said. "We weren’t quite ready to make the decision yet.”

Founded in 1948 with Jewish roots, Brandeis is one of the nation’s youngest research institutions. And Lawrence says the school’s affirmative action policy allows it to put together a student body that represents the best of this country.

“Given the fact that we have a student body that we suspect is something between 50 and 60 percent Jewish, that’s obviously very different from the overall composition of the American population," Lawrence said. "But that said, it’s broadly representative throughout the United States.”

For now, Brandeis and other area colleges and universities will continue to take race into account when sifting through their applicant pools. Still, last week’s decision is expected to put pressure on their affirmative action programs that once got the benefit of the doubt.

The court didn’t reject affirmative action outright, but it didn’t endorse it either. Instead, the court said the University of Texas program ought to be considered constitutional only if racial preferences are the only way to achieve diversity on campus.

“We’re confident that the university’s policy and procedures fully satisfy those standards,” said University of Texas president Bill Powers at a news conference in Austin.

Powers welcomed the court’s ruling that allows U-T to continue to use race as a factor in selecting some of its students.

"There were a number of directions that the justices could have turned in today's ruling," Powers said. "And this 7-1 ruling represents a positive outcome for this university, for the state, and for the nation.”

“I think we have to wait see how it rolls out, going forward, to see what kind of impact it does have on colleges and universities but it was somewhat of a surprise,” said Ann McDermott, director of admissions at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.

In September, New England’s oldest Catholic school filed an amicus brief in the affirmative action case, arguing that admissions policies ought to be protected by the First Amendment. In light of last week’s ruling, McDermott says admissions directors across the country are second-guessing any program that might be seen as preferential.

"I do think it might suggest to people who are of a litigious mindset that, ‘Oh, there’s more of a question about this,’" she said. "I think you’d be naïve to say it would never happen here.”

And to make sure it doesn’t happen here, McDermott says colleges and universities will gather evidence to defend their policies and to meet any new standards.

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