Every year since 2013, usually during the first week of September, the Harvard Crimson publishes survey results profiling the incoming freshman class, including their political and social orientations. These feature-length reports have consistently shown that a dominant majority of Harvard’s incoming students identify as politically and socially progressive, with ever-fewer students identifying as conservative. This year, however, the Crimson didn’t publish the feature and didn’t reply to my inquiry about whether they would do so. Harvard may have good reasons for wanting to delay such a report, given an upcoming Supreme Court case.
In Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the Supreme Court will reexamine a half-century-old justification for race-based university admissions—namely, that racial diversity generates viewpoint diversity on campus and contributes to the lively exchange of ideas. Past results of Harvard’s freshman surveys, which detail growing racial diversity but diminishing viewpoint diversity, discredit this justification. Of the Class of 2025, for example, only 1.4 percent identify as very conservative; only 7.2 percent identify as somewhat conservative; and only 18.6 percent identify as moderate. By contrast, 72.4 percent of freshmen identify as predominantly liberal. Yet this class is the “the most diverse class in the history of Harvard,” according to William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid.
Other survey responses drive the point home. Of members of the Class of 2025 who supported a candidate in the 2020 presidential election, 87 percent backed Joe Biden. Meantime, 82 percent said they supported the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, which resulted in at least $1 billion in damages and numerous deaths, while nearly half (49.8 percent) said that they supported defunding the police. This doesn’t sound like viewpoint diversity to me.
Without viewpoint diversity as a justification, race-based admissions—that is, affirmative action—may not survive. Since 2014, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit group of more than 20,000 students, parents, and others, has argued that affirmative action violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which prohibit public and private universities receiving federal funds from discriminating based on race, color, and national origin. This straightforward legal argument is likely to play well with a Supreme Court that leans toward originalism, but this doesn’t mean that the justices’ decision will rest on that philosophy alone. In fact, the Court’s jurisprudence on race-conscious admissions has centered predominantly not on the legality of the policy but on its implications for higher education.
In his landmark opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Lewis Powell argued that the use of race as a factor in college admissions ought to be permitted because it would (presumably) lead to greater student-body diversity. This was a laudable goal for a university, he said, for it would allow it to achieve “a robust exchange of ideas.”
Sandra Day O’Connor recapitulated Powell’s argument in her opinion for the Court in Grutter v. Bollinger, upholding the University of Michigan Law School’s policy of intentionally favoring applicants from certain racial groups over others with similar qualifications. O’Connor justified the decision largely by appealing to its supposed policy implications. She cited several amicus briefs submitted by left-wing academics, corporations, and professional organizations, all of which alleged countless studies showing that racial and ethnic diversity guaranteed greater viewpoint diversity and, in turn, increased tolerance of differing opinions.
But is this true? Has the use of racial preferences in higher education admissions achieved the “robust exchange of ideas” on which it was originally justified by the courts?
In an amicus brief supporting SFFA’s challenge to race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, the Legal Insurrection Foundation (LIF) says “no.” In the years since Grutter was decided, “the American university campus,” LIF argues, “has become less ideologically diverse and more intolerant of ideas challenging campus dogmas.” The group cites several nonpartisan surveys to support the claim. A 2021 survey of 37,104 students conducted jointly by the College Pulse, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), and RealClearEducation found that more than 80 percent of students reported some amount of self-censorship.
Similarly, LIF notes that a Knight Foundation-Ipsos study released in January showed that 65 percent of college students felt today’s “campus climate prevents people from saying what they believe for fear of offending someone.” What’s more, less than half of all college students “said they were comfortable offering dissenting opinions to ideas shared by other students or the instructor in the classroom.” And 71 percent of students who identified as Republican “felt that the campus climate chilled speech.”
The Court now seems likely to strike down the use of race-conscious admissions in higher education next June. Given the originalist-bent of the Court’s majority, the decision will rely most heavily on the text of both Title VI and the Equal Protection Clause, which prohibit racial discrimination. But it may also have something to say about the faulty premise underlying race-conscious admissions all these years. Contrary to what O’Connor claimed in Grutter, affirmative action has not led to greater diversity of thought on America’s college campuses.
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