Campus News

Carolina gets broad backing for holistic admissions policy 

Briefs filed with SCOTUS show that hundreds of corporate, military and educational supporters nationwide affirm the importance of racial diversity. 

bell tower
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Hundreds of leaders from America’s corporations and businesses, the military, education and a wide range of other professional fields and advocacy groups have filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting Carolina’s holistic approach to admissions and the importance of educating a diverse student body.

The over 50 amicus curiae — or friend-of-the-court — briefs mark the latest development in an eight-year-old lawsuit that challenges Carolina’s holistic approach to admissions in a case that has profound implications for U.S. higher education. Supporters asked the nation’s high court to uphold its current precedent, affirmed as recently as 2016, that permits the limited consideration of race as one factor among many in undergraduate admissions.

The federal lawsuit began in 2014 when Students for Fair Admissions Inc., a private group, alleged that UNC-Chapel Hill’s admissions process was unconstitutional. After an eight-day trial, a district court ruled in Carolina’s favor and concluded the campus admissions process complies with current law. SFFA also filed a lawsuit against Harvard University. Federal trial and appeals courts ruled in Harvard’s favor.

The amicus briefs showed broad support for Carolina’s interest in educating a diverse student body from major businesses, leading science and technology companies, the armed forces, legal organizations, religious and civil rights groups, and colleges and universities, among many others.

One high-profile document represented nearly 70 major businesses including Apple, General Motors, Google and Johnson & Johnson. In their filing, the companies argued that businesses rely on Carolina, Harvard and other universities to create a pipeline of diverse leaders equipped with the skills and experience to thrive in global marketplaces.

Companies “depend on universities to ensure that these students are equipped with the skills to lead in today’s increasingly diverse and globally interconnected workplaces, markets, nation, and world,” the brief said. “Empirical research overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that diverse university environments promote the cognitive growth and leadership skills that are highly valued by [the companies] and across the American economy.”

“Prohibiting American universities from considering race among other factors in composing student bodies would undermine businesses’ efforts to build diverse workforces,” the brief said.

Another brief filed for 11 prominent science and technology companies, including LinkedIn, Mastercard, Microsoft and Shell USA, argued that holistic admissions policies and racial diversity are “essential” to their “ongoing efforts to attract and retain the best possible talent and achieve optimal teamwork. Those efforts, in turn, contribute to the broader health of our nation’s economy.”

Military leaders want diverse officer corps

A group of 35 former senior leaders from all four military branches — including four chairs of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — emphasized the importance of a diverse officer corps to national security. They argued that banning race-conscious admissions policies “would seriously impair the military’s efforts to maintain cohesion and effectiveness” and impede the ability “to acquire essential entry-level attributes and training essential to cohesion” among the ranks.

“Diversity in the halls of academia directly affects performance in the theaters of war,” the senior leaders wrote. “[D]iversity in the Armed Forces is both a national imperative and an invaluable asset.”

A brief filed by the U.S. government, signed by officials including general counsels for the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, cited the vital role of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs at Carolina and other campuses. “The … Armed Forces have long recognized that the Nation’s military strength and readiness depend on a pipeline of officers who are both highly qualified and racially diverse—and who have been educated in diverse environments that prepare them to lead 13 increasingly diverse forces.”

Among many briefs from the higher education community were filings from University of California System president and chancellors and the University of Michigan – both in states banning race-conscious admissions – as well as nearly 60 Catholic institutions, including Notre Dame, and 15 top private universities, including Yale and Duke.

The California system brief noted the 10-campus system continues to face diversity challenges despite extensive efforts to launch race-neutral alternatives to counter sharp enrollment declines among underrepresented minority groups after Proposition 209’s passage banning race-conscious admissions. “… UC struggles to enroll a student body that is sufficiently racially diverse to attain the educational benefits of diversity,” the brief said. “The shortfall is especially apparent at UC’s most selective campuses, where African American, Native American, and Latinx students are underrepresented and widely report struggling with feelings of racial isolation.”

The Catholic schools’ brief stressed that diversity in admissions advanced both academic and religious missions. These schools “should not be unduly constrained in the range of factors they can consider in admissions, including the racial diversity of their student body and the graduates they send forth into the world as Catholic-educated alumni,” the brief said. “For this reason, the free exercise of religion provides additional constitutional weight to the compelling interest in racial diversity.”

The private universities’ brief said diversity “encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the complexity of the modern world. Diversity prepares … graduates to pursue innovation in every field, to be active and engaged citizens equipped to wrestle with the great questions of the day, and to expand humanity’s knowledge and accomplishment.”

Ban would have chilling effect on applicants

The American Council on Education led a coalition of 40 higher education groups filing a brief urging the Supreme Court to reaffirm the legality and value of race-conscious admissions. That brief cautioned that changing current law would unfairly limit how future college applicants express themselves.

“A rule that prohibits race and ethnicity from being considered would ultimately chill prospective students from discussing their racial or ethnic identity or relying on recommendations that carry a racial or ethnic valence,” the brief said. “… But all applicants should be allowed and encouraged to talk about their life experiences and how they might contribute to an institution’s educational environment or community commitments.”

The amicus brief filings, which consistently criticized SFFA’s claims as baseless, were the next step in Supreme Court process. Amicus briefs present additional perspectives about how a court’s ruling may affect people besides parties to a lawsuit and share information that filers ask the court to consider before a decision.

The Supreme Court will hear separate oral arguments in the UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard cases on Oct. 31. A decision is expected in 2023.

Carolina, in its brief submitted on July 25, asked the Supreme Court to affirm its precedent and uphold the North Carolina trial court’s decision.

“In a comprehensive 155-page decision, the district court found that UNC seeks these educational benefits [of diversity] while scrupulously following this Court’s precedents on the careful and limited consideration of race in university admissions,” the brief said.

Ideally, Carolina could realize such diversity without considering race, having worked “diligently to accelerate its progress toward that objective, giving serious and ongoing consideration to race-neutral alternatives and enthusiastically adopting the most promising strategies for attaining diversity in race-neutral ways,” the brief continued.

“These efforts have already borne considerable fruit. Although UNC’s holistic process considers all aspects of an applicant’s background, race only rarely plays a meaningful role—explaining a mere 1.2% of admissions decisions. But as the district court found, even this limited consideration of race remains necessary to achieve UNC’s academic mission.”

Learn more about Carolina’s case at its admissions lawsuit website and view a sampling of select amicus brief supporters. For a full list of and access to the newly filed amicus briefs, visit the Supreme Court’s website to view the case docket.