Student Opposition to Affirmative Action Policies in Higher Education

by Grace Campagna

Affirmative action programs and policies in higher education have been divisive since their inception in the 1960s. Supporters have highlighted the positive effects of diverse student bodies and praised efforts to give preference to underrepresented groups and victims of systematic discrimination. Opponents often advocate for “colorblind” approaches to college admissions that value merit without regard to past discrimination or current socioeconomic contexts. Both claim to value equality and fairness yet interpret and apply those terms differently.1Moses, Michele S. Living with Moral Disagreement: The Enduring Controversy about Affirmative Action. The University of Chicago Press, 2016, 27. This is one reason that the debate over affirmative action has been so intense and complex. Students have consistently taken active roles in this process, from the 1960s protests that helped start the programs to lawsuits over rejected applications.

The most recent challenge to affirmative action policies in higher education was the high-profile case in which Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard University over the school’s use of race in admissions decisions. The group believes that “racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional” and that Harvard uses such policies to consistently discriminate against Asian American applicants.2“About.” Students for Fair Admissions, https://studentsforfairadmissions.org/about/. In October 2019, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in Harvard’s favor, citing a lack of evidence that the university’s policies negatively impact the chances of Asian-American applicants3.Griffith, Janelle. “Judge Rules in Favor of Harvard in Affirmative Action Case.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, October 1, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/judge-rules-favor-harvard-affirmative-action-case-n1060921. While this case is not the first to question policies that take race into account, it is unique in asserting that a school’s affirmative action policies are harming minorities. This case, and similar lawsuits against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin (the plaintiff in both cases is Students for Fair Admissions) complicate a history of primarily white student opposition to affirmative action. Other high-profile cases that challenged the use of race in admissions (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), and Fisher v. University of Texas (2013)) alleged that race-conscious policies harmed white students. While the Harvard case includes white students in the case, the primary focus has been discrimination against Asian-Americans. 

Students for Fair Admissions brought its lawsuit under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.”4Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, et seq. The organization claims that Harvard’s policies contradict American principles of equality, promote “racial balancing” in the form of predetermined racial percentages, use race as a primary factor in admissions decisions, and do not fulfill the school’s goal of creating a diverse student body.5Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., Plaintiff, v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard Corporation); and The Honorable and Reverend the Board of Overseers, Defendants., 1:2014cv14176. In Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice, J. Edward Kellough presents a synthesis of the five key and most common arguments against affirmative action.6Kellough, J. Edward. Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice. Georgetown University Press, 2008, 83-91. The complaint against Harvard makes use of three of them, demonstrating that, while the case is unique, the arguments are not. The plaintiff and Asian American students involved in the Harvard case use many of the same arguments that others have traditionally used to support white interests in order to support those of Asian American students. Recent cases that accuse universities of using race-conscious admissions policies to discriminate against Asian-American applicants demonstrate that student opposition to affirmative action extends beyond the white student population. It is when students view affirmative action policies, or those they seek to benefit, as a threat to their chances of admission or position on campus that they take action against those policies. 

Student opposition to affirmative action programs began as soon as universities began to implement them in the 1960s. During that period, backlash centered around the idea that programs to help minority students “upset a meritocratic order that many Americans had come to believe helped create postwar prosperity and improved social relations.”7Deslippe, Dennis. Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after The Civil Rights Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, 52. Supporters of this meritocracy argued that affirmative action programs impeded the education of the most talented students and that race and gender should not be factors in admissions decisions. The implementation of some programs occasionally prompted violent backlash against minority students. In 1969, “white students, shouting racial epithets, pursued black and Puerto Rican” CUNY students who had been protesting admissions policies.8Deslippe, Dennis. Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after The Civil Rights Revolution, 69. In this case, it was white students who opposed affirmative action programs because they viewed an increased population of minority students as a threat to their privileged position on campus (in 1969, around 80% of CUNY’s student body was white) and the admission chances of other white students.9Deslippe, Dennis. Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after The Civil Rights Revolution, 62.

A decade later, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race-conscious admissions policies in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Allan Bakke sued the University of California after the school denied his application to medical school twice. He argued that the University’s special admissions program, which evaluated minority candidates separately from the general application pool, violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause.10Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U. S. 265 (1978), 266. The school reserved sixteen out of one hundred spaces in the class for students from minority and disadvantaged groups. Bakke believed that the university admitted less qualified students than himself in an effort to fill those sixteen spaces, which resulted in his rejection. In a 5-4 decision, the Court struck down the special admissions policy and the use of race as the sole determining factor in admissions decisions (i.e. quotas). However, it upheld race as a partial factor in admissions decisions in order to remedy past discrimination and disadvantage, as long as the university used race as only one of many points of consideration. This case illustrates the idea that student opposition to affirmative action oftentimes stems from a feeling of victimization. Bakke believed that the admission of minority students directly influenced his rejection and that, had the university not chosen to reserve the sixteen seats, they would have admitted him.11Horn, Catherine L., and Patricia Marin. “Realizing the Legacy of Bakke.” In Realizing Bakke’s Legacy: Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, and Access to Higher Education, edited by Catherine L. Horn and Patricia Marin, Stylus Publishing, LLC., 2008, pp. 1–14, 2. 

A similar process was at work in the Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), and Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) cases. In each one, white plaintiffs challenged university affirmative action policies over rejected applications. Rather than stemming from a dislike of minority students or a commitment to equality, the students’ opposition was the result of a negative personal experience. This assertion is consistent with previous studies that have identified a correlation between support for affirmative action and self-interest. Those that will not benefit from the policy will be less likely to support it.12Sax, Linda J., and Marisol Arredondo. “Student Attitudes toward Affirmative Action in College Admissions.” Research in Higher Education 40, no. 4 (1999): 439-59, 452. For some students, diversity on college campuses is admirable until it comes at a perceived personal cost.  

Understanding student opposition to affirmative action through the language of personal victimization and threat does not provide an all-encompassing framework with which to approach this complex issue. However, it does help to contextualize a few of the prominent examples, explain the motivations behind some of the individuals involved, and provide one possible explanation for minority opposition to affirmative action in the Harvard case. Although both student and public opinions on affirmative action change regularly in reaction to new developments, college students may approach the issue differently than the general public because of their personal stake in the matter. Further research into how students have formed opinions, which factors influenced their viewpoints, and how they differed from the general public will help shed light on student positions over time and how their current states came to be. 

Bibliography 

“About.” Students for Fair Admissions, https://studentsforfairadmissions.org/about/.

Deslippe, Dennis. Protesting Affirmative Action: The Struggle over Equality after The Civil Rights Revolution. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Griffith, Janelle. “Judge Rules in Favor of Harvard in Affirmative Action Case.” NBCNews.com

NBCUniversal News Group, October 1, 2019. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/judge-rules-favor-harvard-affirmative-action-case-n1060921.

Horn, Catherine L., and Patricia Marin. “Realizing the Legacy of Bakke.” In Realizing Bakke’s Legacy: Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity, and Access to Higher Education, edited by Catherine L. Horn and Patricia Marin, Stylus Publishing, LLC., 2008, pp. 1–14.

Jacobson, Cardell K. “The Bakke Decision: White Reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Test of Affirmative Action Programs.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 27, no. 4 (December 1983): 687–705. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022002783027004007.

Kellough, J. Edward. Understanding Affirmative Action: Politics, Discrimination, and the Search for Justice. Georgetown University Press, 2008.

Moses, Michele S. Living with Moral Disagreement: The Enduring Controversy about Affirmative Action. The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U. S. 265 (1978).

Sax, Linda J., and Marisol Arredondo. “Student Attitudes toward Affirmative Action in College Admissions.” Research in Higher Education 40, no. 4 (1999): 439-59.

Schmidt, Peter. Color and Money: How Rich White Kids Are Winning the War over College Affirmative Action. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, et seq.