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NADOHE Panel: Colleges Must Prepare for Affirmative Action Verdicts Now

The Supreme Court’s decisions in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina, the cases that could re-shape the role of race in admissions or even ban it entirely, are not likely to be known until next June. But institutions need to start preparing now for a range of possible outcomes, said Art Coleman, co-founder of EducationCounsel, a consultancy that works with schools on issues of diversity.Art Coleman, co-founder of EducationCounselArt Coleman, co-founder of EducationCounsel

Coleman was presenting as part of a webinar organized by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, part of a series about the cases that could fundamentally re-align their work. Coleman was peppered with questions about what might happen and the potential implications. Could future applicants be prevented from speaking fully about their racial identities? Unlikely. Could a decision impact eligibility for scholarships? Yes. Could it prevent DEI offices from funding ethnic student resource centers and programs? Probably not, if they are open to all. But the overarching message was that the decisions will reverberate far outside admissions offices and that colleges need to get ready now.

Coleman said that a common structure that schools are using is to have an overarching committee focusing on big picture issues, with subcommittees focusing on potential effects for individual departments. Schools should also make use of pre-existing resources, such as the National Association for College Admissions Counseling/National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators report “Toward a More Equitable Future for Post-Secondary Access,” and the Handbook on Diversity and the Law from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Schools should take time this fall to inventory all of their relevant policies and practices, Coleman said, and to gather the institutional and external research that could provide a foundation for how to make any necessary changes.

“It all ties into developing options so that we’re positioned with well-developed ideas that we can then pivot to, depending on what direction the court takes,” he said.

Institutions should prepare themselves not only with research on policy options, but on the educational benefits of diversity—the reason that affirmative action has been permitted for decades.

“I think we position ourselves better if we do a better job telling our story about the power, the force, the impact of student diversity, including racial and ethnic diversity, for the betterment of all students,” said Coleman.

Colleges and universities also need to prepare communications strategies for a range of possible decisions. College presidents will be expected to send emails expressing pleasure or disappointment with whatever decision is made. This email can also include initial details about what the school will be doing in order to comply. Schools can use these messages to reassert their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to review the efforts that are currently being made.

Coleman suggested that this message might also be an ideal spot to announce additional commitments: “Are you prepared to announce a $2 million investment in new targeted recruitment and outreach that can balance whatever adverse impact the court might have?” he asked.

In parallel, schools will have to develop a media strategy. Coleman recommended deciding far in advance whether the institution will have any official comment and, if so, what it will be.

Coleman also recommended that universities go over all of the copy on their websites relating to programs that might be affected, and to change any language that might prove problematic under new legal circumstances—what Coleman called “avoiding unforced errors.”

Stakeholders on campus should also be engaged prior to any decision, according to Coleman. There should be efforts made to help faculty and students understand the nuances of the issue, such as that affirmative action has been permitted due to its educational benefits, rather than to remedy past social injustices. This can help them both to process the eventual decision and to understand how the college plans to proceed.

By the winter and spring, schools should begin to have a sense of exactly what will need to change depending on the court’s ruling, as well as what the options for those changes will be. Although most decisions in big cases come at the end of the Supreme Court’s term, Coleman emphasized that it was still possible that a decision could come earlier in the spring, and that schools must be ready for this possibility.

Whenever a decision is released, another cycle of work will begin, this time to implement whatever changes are necessary to comply with the court’s ruling as quickly as possible. DEI officers, it seems, are in for a long stretch of hard work.

“Take your vacation now,” said Coleman. “The summer of 2023 will be a busy time.”

Jon Edelman can be reached at [email protected].

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