For decades, affirmative action programs have been used as one way to bring racial equity to college admissions. Now the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases involving affirmative action, and is widely expected to say the practice is unconstitutional. The decision could come in early 2023. We hear from Milyon Trulove, the vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Reed College, and Ame Lambert, vice president for global diversity and inclusion at Portland State University. They share what the absence of affirmative action programs would mean for their universities and what else institutions of higher learning can do to move toward racial equity.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. For decades, affirmative action programs have been used as one way to bring more racial diversity and racial equity to college admissions. In case after case, going back almost fifty years, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that colleges can take race into account in deciding who to let in. But that could change.
The court announced recently that it’s going to hear two related challenges brought against Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill. Legal experts say that the court agreed to take on these cases because its conservative majority intends to outlaw affirmative action in college admissions with this as the backdrop. We wanted to know how admissions and diversity initiatives are working right now at two Oregon schools. Milyon Trulove is the vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Reed College. Ame Lambert is a vice president for global diversity and inclusion at Portland State University. It’s good to have both of you on the show.
Milyon Trulove: Really great to be here.
Ame Lambert: Thanks for having me. Great to be here.
Miller: Milyon Trulove, first. Can you remind us what the legal standard [for affirmative action] has been nationwide? How have you been allowed to take race into account in college admissions?
Trulove: A lot of colleges have spent a lot of time thinking about the makeup of their campus, and while race is the point of this conversation, we understand students bring a lot of gifts to campus. One of our goals is to make sure that the classroom has a lot of different opinions from many different backgrounds, whether that’s geographic, whether that’s race, whether that’s what activities folks are involved in. So the Supreme Court has said that it’s okay for colleges to use this as one of many criteria in order to create a really diverse classroom experience. And colleges know, based on research, that a diverse classroom experience has really improved outcomes and that’s really been the focus of many of our offices.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for what that has looked like in practice at Reed [College] in terms of the difficult decisions you have to make given that many more people want to go to Reed than can actually be admitted?
Trulove: Well, one of the things I’ve always said is that diversity doesn’t start just at the admission phase. It really starts when you build what we call ‘application pools.’ We talk to many more diverse audiences and tell them about the college. So as a result, those who apply to the school tend to have a very diverse makeup. And so this idea that schools have to sort of turn up the faucet at the point they’re saying ‘yes,’ that’s not really the only way that that’s done. It’s really done by communicating to more diverse audiences earlier in the process and, as a result, your campus simply becomes more diverse.
One of the things we can’t deny is that ethnicity and backgrounds of historically marginalized individuals have different experiences and we think that really adds to the conversation of our classroom, just like a student from a rural town adds a really unique experience. So that’s something that we spend time thinking about when we’re saying ‘yes.’
Miller: Ame Lambert, as I noted, you’re vice president for global diversity and inclusion at PSU. ‘Admission’ or ‘admissions’ is not in your title, but do you have a role in the way Portland State University approaches admissions?
Lambert: We are fortunate to have excellent folks leading enrollment management. It is a really strong team. I think we’re very aligned in terms of our commitment to education as a public good and, really, our commitment to serving folks in Portland and in the region. So a lot of the conversations that Milyon was talking about, starting earlier in the pipeline, for example, we have our senior inquiry program in diverse high schools which serves as a pipeline to college. There are partnerships we have with community based organizations. We are currently working with Self Enhancement Incorporated to create pathways for their staff who do not have college degrees. So there are lots of things that we’re doing to complement the great work happening in enrollment management and admissions. If you think about enrollment management as a pipeline, not just getting people to, but getting people through. We have programs that pick up where admissions [started] and get people through the university.
Miller: What are examples of that, of getting through, not just to? What programs do you think are particularly successful?
Lambert: I will highlight two. Federally funded programs have a long history of success. We have pre-college programs: Upward Bound and Education Talent Search, and we have multicultural retention services. It is the opportunity to be culturally affirming and culturally centered, and really to affirm the identities that students come to campus with and provide holistic advising to get them to their dreams.
I would also say that, as we think about getting folks through the work around career services and leadership development, a lot of our students are first in their families to go to college. So, we talk a lot about the hidden curriculum. There are things that people know if you have the privilege to be a continuing generation student or to come from a family with more means. So demystifying the hidden curriculum is critical to set folks up for success in and after college.
Miller: Milyon Trulove, I want to go back to what you noted earlier. You were talking about the value of a diverse campus community that, if I understood you correctly, is one of the biggest things that is driving the way you think about admissions as a whole. How do you quantify that? I mean, what do your students get because of these efforts to create a more diverse campus community?
Trulove: Well particularly at liberal arts schools, I think of the foundation of what we believe in, what we’re doing. So, if a student comes to Reed [College] and they’re interested in English, that’s not the only thing they will learn. They’ll be imbued with a scientific mind; they’ll learn about literature; they’ll also learn about how society works. Part of that is given to them from the faculty going through a theoretical collaborative process to teach students, but the other part of that is the conversations in the classroom.
I was born in Oklahoma, born and raised in Oklahoma. What I might say with my Oklahoma perspective might be very different from what I might say from my Oregon perspective. Those are really interesting intersections, and that’s exposure that you might not really have sitting at your high school that you can uniquely get at your college. So, you take that and you start looking at the different aspects of the human being. We’re trying to create all those facets in the classroom. We think it makes a more robust individual that can go out in the world and really survive interchangeably and reflect interchangeably in quite a wide variety of environments. We think that’s an incredible strength.
Miller: What would you tell the Justices if it were up to you (among others) to go up there in the fall and make the case for why the status quo should continue? Why [should] you and your colleagues be allowed to consider race as one factor among many in addition to the value of geographic diversity of having somebody with an Oklahoman point of view be at Reed? But if you’re going to say that, especially to the six conservative Justices, ‘this is why we should be allowed to consider race when admitting people to Reed,’ what would you tell them?
Trulove: I think there are certainly two things. Almost every case that’s gone before the Supreme Court, except for this one, has been brought by a student. This is being brought by an individual who has brought similar cases to the court in the past. But the singular focus has almost always been test scores and using the test score as a metric to evaluate that there’s been some sort of unfair practices based on race. I think in the new environment where schools are going test-optional, even test-blind, that really becomes moot. As a result, we have not seen this secondary criteria that really puts anyone in a position to say that there is unfair treatment other than the singular standard. As a result, what do colleges have to focus on? It’s called holistic admission.
If we truly believe that colleges are fair, none of our colleges actually represent the makeup of the United States. They’re either overrepresented or underrepresented. So there has to be a reckoning throughout higher education if they’re looking for what they’re perceiving as equity, which is not what we have now. So then what do you look at as a result? What is the goal of educational institutions? It’s to make robust folks who could survive in the world and speak to many different things. I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that race has a history and an impact on our lived experiences. And if we’re doing our job, then that has to be a criteria that we use in order to create these classrooms that help people survive out in our world.
Miller: If you boil down the basic legal arguments that we’ve seen for decades now, you can see two really straightforward versions of the two sides in two lines from Supreme Court Justices. In 1978, Harry Blackmun wrote, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take race into account. There is no other way.” That was in a ruling that really set up the system we have now. But in a 2007 opinion, John Roberts wrote, “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
So on the one hand, there is an acknowledgment that there is a legacy of racism in this country that is still impacting us today, a version of which we just heard from Milyon Trulove. And on the other from John Roberts’ belief that justice needs to be colorblind. Court watchers are pretty clear right now that the current court is going in that second direction that justice equals being “colorblind.” I’m curious what you see as the impact of that philosophy, where that goes.
Lambert: I think first off it’s actually impossible to be colorblind. So, just making it clear that our brains recognize color very quickly on an implicit level is really important. But I think it’s also important to talk about the fact that positive discrimination is happening all of the time along the basis of race. The challenge is now it is invisible, right? So we have conversations right now about affirmative action in college admissions favoring minorities folks, particularly Black, Latinx folks and Pacific Islanders. But we don’t talk about things like legacy admissions, right? Or the preferences in athletics. The college admissions scandal kind of blew that wide open and the idea that there’s a lot of access in athletics contrary to what folks might have been thinking before the scandal. It is not just about letting BIPOC folks in, this really was an opportunity for wealthy white folks to have access. So I think that it’s really important to make a lot of things that are happening visible.
If we can look at those things historically and currently that are actually working against minorities folks: the schools, access to the kind of extracurricular opportunities, the opportunity to engage, who’s writing them recommendation letters, who is able to make a phone call to admissions office and say, “Hey, I’ve got this person”, I think if we can make all of these things explicit and visible, then this colorblind philosophy, on its face, is a really good thing. Let’s just take color out of the picture and move forward. The U. S. was actually based with race at the center. So you cannot just move back away from that and think that your desire will make it reality.
Miller: Milyon, a lot of the things that Ame was talking about are more salient at the more selective private schools in this country. What do you think about legacy admissions or alumni whose children are applying, about [families] who have given a lot of money to the school, or people who are good at lacrosse or whatever sport? What do you think about that at Reed?
Trulove: Well to answer directly, it has very little impact here at Reed in terms of legacy admission. I think part of that has been really motivated by the institution saying that these are things that we particularly value. But it’s sort of interesting because you get into these questions of which of these sorts of metrics and meters will we have issue with and not have issue with.
For example, need-based admission, taking a look at students based on how much they make. If you take a look at whether or not you think it’s a good school or a bad school, you suddenly start moving into these systems where it becomes wicked complex, incredibly complicated. So to really pinpoint this one thing and say this one thing is problematic moves away from this process we try to do, which is called holistic admission, which is to look at the whole individual. n and of itself, as a singular issue, this becomes really pinpoint targeted towards race. But if you take a look back at what colleges have accomplished with holistic admission, I think it’s more to be proud of than to be nervous about.
Miller: I take your point that it’s a limited picture if we only focus on the question of race in college admissions, but that’s what the Supreme Court is going to be taking up in just a couple of months. Do you think that the racial makeup of the student body at Reed will change going forward? If the Supreme Court does, in fact, say ‘you cannot consider race in any way in admissions, you can have a holistic approach, but you have to strike race from the categories that you include?’
Trulove: Well that’s a really good question. I’m going to answer it in a roundabout way to be really frank. Part of it is when they took a look at these schools, and in a test in a race-blind environment, they did change. Historically underrepresented individuals, those who identified as Hispanic Latinx, those numbers fell by at least half, even more so for African American students.
I don’t know what would happen at Reed because we do have more diverse inquiry pools, but what will happen nationally, I think is a bit different. I think colleges that are wealthy and have resources, (maybe the schools we were talking about) will simply position themselves to no longer take federal funds and they’ll do what they want to do. There are colleges like Hillsdale that do that right now. They don’t accept any Title IV money. So as a result, they’re not beholden by the reporting from Title IX, and that’s how they skirt many of the federal mandates.
I think what this really impacts are those middle-tier schools, the breadbasket of the United States. Schools that are providing access to the common student. I think those schools will be wildly impacted. I think we are going to see more majority students enrolling at places that we normally go to because they’re the local regional school that provides a solid education, but it’s accessible.
Miller How concerned are you that a ruling saying ‘you can’t take race into account at all in admissions,’ a ruling that, as you noted, may have less direct bearing on PSU specifically in terms of admissions? How worried are you that that kind of ruling would eventually extend to other facets of university life?
Lambert: Yeah, it definitely is a concern. And I think the conversations that have been happening nationally around critical race theory and encroachment on academic freedom of what is taught in a classroom, those become real concerns. Our ability to recruit a representative faculty and staff class because students need to see role models, students need to have folks that they don’t have to explain their experiences to all the time. So you do wonder about how this decision can impact others.
Then really, you think about (and I am very clear, I love PSU because we’re an opportunity institution) I also know that these elite private institutions provide access to social networks. So if the pipeline shrinks to those places, it might be great for us for enrollment and we will take care of our students. You wonder about this kind of stratification. If you’re creating a pathway to decision making tables and power and leadership and that is for folks with more influence and those who have access to those elite institutions and you’re creating a pathway to jobs and for a person who is a higher education administrator. That’s really problematic.
Miller: I was thinking even specifically about, for example, the kinds of programs that you talked about at the beginning when you said ‘this is not just about getting people to college. It’s getting them through.’ Some of the programs that have worked at PSU involve specifically targeting say students of color to give them support ‚or perhaps students who are the first members of their families to go to college. Would a program that offers support specifically for Black students or Latino students be in jeopardy if the Supreme Court said that,’ you can’t consider race in admissions?’ How far do you think that kind of a ruling would extend?
Lambert: That’s an excellent question. Right now, the programs are culturally centered, but they’re not culturally restricted. So we would hope that that would not be impacted, but there’s no guarantee. So, that would be a real concern. The research is absolutely clear that a positive cultural identity, a positive racial identity is correlated with efficacy. We want our students to have efficacy. We want them to have agency. Being able to own their whole story and being able to sit in their identities is an important part of that. And so yeah, there are concerns about it, even though right now we are not culturally restricted.
Miller: How much are people in your position nationwide talking about these issues amongst yourselves right now? How much are you talking about the coming Supreme Court case and the ruling after that?
Trulove: I’d say there’s been so much in these last few years in our country related to race. I think these conversations have really taken a large role into what we’re talking about on a daily basis. I think we all believe that this is not the first area that will be impacted in higher education. I think if this does happen, this will be the first step of perhaps many things that will take place afterwards. Hiring practices, as you said. Some of these access programs, will be impacted. I think at the end of the day, many of us are really trying to focus on our mission and do what we can right now and control what we can right now. A handful of us colleges wrote an amicus brief to support some of the cases in the past and we’re hoping that the Supreme Court will understand the benefit of having diverse institutions educationally. But I do think we are on pins and needles waiting to see how we might have to do moving forward based on the result of this case.
Miller: Milyon Trulove and Ame Lambert, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.
Lambert: Thank you.
Trulove: Thanks so much, Dave appreciated being here.
Miller: Ame Lambert is vice president for global diversity and inclusion at Portland State University. Milyon Trulove is the vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Reed College.
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