Following a historic Supreme Court decision overturning affirmative action, University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne promised that Stanford will adapt to the new legal environment to maintain the institution’s “commitment to an educational and research environment whose excellence is fostered by diversity in all forms,” in an email to the campus community.
While Tessier-Lavigne acknowledged that the University’s plans to adjust to the ruling are still a work-in-progress, he said that “one immediate area of focus” will be to expand its current outreach initiatives to prospective applicants.
“We want excellent students from all backgrounds, including those from historically underrepresented ones, to know more about and consider Stanford,” Tessier-Lavigne said.
In tandem, Tessier-Lavigne says the University plans to continue a “holistic review” of applicants — an admissions practice that, up until this point, included race as one component.
These statements come in the wake of the Supreme Court’s break from a 45-year precedent in two decisions on June 29: a 6-3 decision against the University of North Carolina and a 6-2 ruling opposing Harvard College. As laid out in Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion, the rulings rest on the premise that the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause requires racial neutrality in the admissions process. To Roberts, “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it,” referring to any manner of race itself being a factor in admissions.
However, in a dissenting opinion, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson advocated for affirmative action, arguing that the generational racial inequalities affirmative action was meant to remedy “still plague our society.”
Assistant professor of political science Hakeem Jefferson, who studies intersection of race and politics in the United States, characterized Thursday’s decision as something he expected. However, that didn’t stop the ruling from feeling like “a gut punch.”
“The conservative majority on the Court has held no deference to its precedent,” Jefferson said. “Several of the justices on the Court have shown a distaste for affirmative action in the past, notably to [Chief] Justice John Roberts, and Justice Clarence Thomas.”
While the court ultimately struck down affirmative action, Roberts left some room open for race’s involvement in college admissions, arguing that it may still be tied to an individual’s experiences, but not used as a blanket categorization.
Regardless, Tessier-Lavigne acknowledged that the ruling likely leaves many University community members disheartened, including himself.
“I am deeply disappointed by today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upends the long-standing practice of race-conscious university admissions to help achieve a diverse student body,” Tessier-Lavigne wrote.
Echoing Tessier-Lavigne’s disappointment, deans of Stanford graduate schools such as Stanford Law School (SLS), Stanford Medicine, the School of Engineering and the Graduate School of Education (GSE) also expressed disappointment in the ruling.
In support of the use of affirmative action in the Harvard case, the University filed a total of three separate amicus briefs — legal documents where outside parties provide further arguments to a case. Within the briefs, the University argued that affirmative action can play an especially significant role in fostering diversity in STEM fields.
To Roberts, benefits such as these lacked the clarity necessary to deem affirmative action constitutional, writing that in the case of both Harvard and UNC, their admissions programs lacked “sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping and lack meaningful end points.”
Jackson, the first-ever Black woman to serve on the nation’s highest court, dissented from the Chief Justice’s opinion, arguing that the majority opinion operates on a naive sense of the realities of race in the United States.
“But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life,” Jackson wrote. “And having so detached itself from this country’s actual past and present experiences the Court has now been lured into interfering with the crucial work that UNC and other institutions of higher learning are doing to solve America’s real-world problems.”
Jackson later argued that only affirmative action can get the admissions process to properly account for the diversity within the Asian American community.
History of court cases on Affirmative Action
The cases were initially filed in 2014 by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA). SFFA is led by conservative activist Edward Blum, who has challenged affirmative action policies over two dozen times in the past. In opposition to affirmative action policies, Blum has previously said that “You cannot cure racial discrimination that occurred in the past with new discrimination today” and that “Race and ethnicity have no place in American life and law.”
SFFA argued that Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions policies violated the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which bans discrimination on the basis of race for programs receiving federal funds; in these instances, SFFA argued that white and Asian applicants were at a relative disadvantage due to their race.
Both the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts and the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against SFFA.
But, the Supreme Court ultimately sided with SFFA, with Roberts similarly arguing that affirmative action “results in fewer Asian American and white students being admitted.” He also said the policies were overly broad, to the point of having “no concern [for] whether South Asian or East Asian students are adequately represented as ‘Asian.’”
The cases depart from a series of Supreme Court cases dating back to 1978, in which the court prohibited racial quotas but allowed for race-conscious admissions practices more broadly to increase and maintain campus diversity.
Affirmative action has since been challenged in courts numerous times. In 2003, the Supreme Court affirmed that a more diverse student body was a “compelling state interest.” In 2016, the Court stated that universities were owed “considerable deference” in outlining what characteristics were important to their admissions processes.
In one study, it was suggested that when bans on affirmative action are enacted, Black and Latino enrollment drops. An analysis of California public universities — which have been prohibited from using affirmative action since 1996 — indicated similar effects on universities in the state.
Stanford community groups have expressed concerns in the past about the broader implications that an affirmative action ban could have on the University, with Phong Nguyen ’25 — who works with the 22% Campaign, a group that advocates a broader representation of Asian American communities in Stanford admission decisions — saying that “I can’t imagine learning the same things and being able to have such incredible experiences, [such as] talking to different people and learning their stories in the same way.”
Nguyen said that the need for a diverse campus is clear, “especially for students who want to engage in their culture and find other people who understand each other.”
Jefferson noted that Stanford exploring all legally feasible paths towards a more diverse student body is an especially urgent matter.
“Stanford should use all of its brilliant and bountiful resources to do whatever [it takes] in keeping with what is now established law to recruit the most diverse students [it] possibly can,” Jefferson said. “I think the ball is now in the courts of places like Stanford to fashion policies that do the most to advance the cause of diversity, equity and inclusion — words that institutions like Stanford like to use.”
To motivate student action on this issue, Jefferson said that students themselves should be involved in conversations about affirmative action as he says they are in a “unique position of articulate why [affirmative action] matters.”
“Students should petition the University [and] they should call on the University to… make it public as to how they will respond to this decision from the court,” Jefferson said. “Call on administrators to use the brilliance of this institution — its net wealth, privilege, lobbying [and] all of the tools at its disposal — to do what justice demands.”