Affirmative action changes mean for UO

First published in the Daily Emerald on July 23rd, 2018. On July 3, the U.S. Department of Education announced it would rescind legal guidelines for universities that use race as a factor in their student admissions process, and instead will begin promoting race-neutral admission policies.

The guidelines, which were first published by the Obama administration in 2011, provided recommendations for how universities could use race as an admissions factor in a way that was consistent with federal law. The introduction to the guidelines also contains justification for race-based admissions, citing the benefits that diverse learning environments have on society.

The decision to rescind the affirmative action guidelines comes amidst a lawsuit filed against Harvard by Students for Fair Admissions, a non-profit group that claims Harvard discriminates against Asian-American students by giving them lower “personality” scores even if their test scores outrank those of other applicants. The Department of Justice is also currently reviewing Harvard’s admissions policies on suspicions that it is illegally discriminating against Asian-American students.

How exactly will the changes affect admissions at the UO? According to UO’s holistic review process for student admissions, the racial or ethnic identity of student applicants is taken into consideration.

When asked if the university would be changing their admissions process following the Trump administration’s actions, UO spokesperson Tobin Klinger issued this written response:

No single factor determines admissions decisions and our process is carried out in accordance with best practices for university admissions, and with current federal rulings. The new guidance will not change our process at this time.”

According to a recent Around the O article, since the year 2000 the percentage of UO students who are ethnic minorities has increased from 12.8 percent to 26.8 percent, with the class of 2017 being the most ethnically diverse in university history. Roger Thompson, vice president of Student Services and Enrollment Management, notes in the article that UO is more diverse than the state of Oregon itself.

Equal opportunity or racial bias?

Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made the decision to rescind the guidelines, arguing that they strongly encouraged racial bias in admissions processes and downplayed the potential legal difficulties of implementing affirmative action.

Affirmative action is a result of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement effort to create equal opportunities for minority groups that are historically underrepresented. The constitutionality of affirmative action has proven to be controversial in college admissions.  

The Supreme Court has ruled that schools are not allowed to implement quotas for acceptance of minority students, but narrowly taking race into consideration, among other factors, is constitutional. Critics of affirmative action claim that the program gives preferential treatment to minority students and lowers standards for those students, making it easier for them to get into colleges.

Oregon lawmakers criticize Trump’s decision

The Emerald reached out to Oregon’s congressional representatives to get their response to the Trump administration’s actions.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, issued a statement criticizing President Donald Trump’s policies, and cited the repeal of affirmative action guidelines as an attack on “proven and needed policies.”

“Unfortunately, it comes as no surprise that he is now taking his battle to colleges by plotting with Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos to attack proven and needed policies that promote diversity and improve the educational experience and campus life in Oregon and nationwide,” Wyden wrote. “Just as I have fought back against Trump’s moves to defend white supremacists and to implement cruel immigration policies, I will fight back against this deeply flawed and backward-looking scheme.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-OR, responded in an interview last Friday at UO’s HEDCO building where she held a roundtable discussion on high school safety. Like Sen. Wyden, she offered a rebuke of the Trump administration.

“I see it as just another step by the Trump administration to attack opportunities for other people,” Bonamici said. “We all benefit when we have perspectives from different people, particularly in higher education.”

Bonamici’s full statement on the issue can be read here.

What’s next for UO admissions?

Although the new guidance from the Trump administration doesn’t change any existing laws, it does indicate an opposition to affirmative action and reveals the challenges that universities might face from the Department of Justice if they continue to use race as a factor in admissions.

Various news outlets, including CNN, Politico and the New York Times, have speculated that the pending litigation against Harvard may go to the Supreme Court, which could then issue a ruling that reverses past Court rulings on affirmative action, thereby making race-based college admissions illegal.

Klinger acknowledged this legal situation in his response, writing that, ”The withdraw [sic] of Obama-OCR guidance that encouraged the use of programs designed to increase diversity does not materially change either the law or how UO should go about its admissions decisions, so we can’t really say when or how something might change.”