As a casual observer of the Supreme Court, I am not sure what I think of the soundness of the Court’s interpretation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment in its recent decision on affirmative action. However, legal questions aside, the changes the University made to its admissions policy in response, which were announced Aug. 1, are excellent steps in the right direction.
The new application process will replace checkboxes for both race and legacy status with essay prompts allowing students to discuss life experiences, which can include experiences related to race, ethnicity and their relationship to the University. These prompts will offer students the opportunity to explain how those experiences and relationships have prepared them as individuals to contribute to the University.
The new admissions policy allows the University to look more intentionally at the individuality of various prospective students, rather than painting with a broad brush and crudely lumping every prospective student into a race-based category. Skin color and ethnicity affect people’s lives, but different people are affected in different ways, to different degrees and for different reasons. The new policy allows the admissions committee to take the very real effects of race into account without profiling and stereotyping students in the process.
The situation with legacy admissions is similar. Legacy admissions can help to foster strong relationships between the University and alumni families in the broader community. But family relationships affect different people and their ability to contribute to University culture in different ways. Considering these factors in an essay rather than a checkbox is a laudable step that will further enable the admissions committee to see students’ individuality.
Overall, these changes make for a more just admissions process. They give prospective students the benefit of knowing they are being treated fairly, whatever their skin color, ethnicity or legacy status might be. They will give the University the benefit of being able to more closely consider prospective students’ individuality as they make hard decisions. They will shield minority and legacy students from the stigma of having peers believe they were admitted based on group membership rather than their own qualities as individuals. Most importantly, these changes are the right thing to do — they respect the dignity and inherent value of students as individuals and acknowledge the diversity within various groups.
I applaud President Ryan, Provost Baucom and the administration for taking a delicate situation that was fraught with controversy and coming out of it with a best-of-all-worlds solution that everyone can feel good about.
Daniel Slonim is a Whyburn Research Associate and Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics.