Volume 22, Issue 3 – June 2023

Member Spotlight
Rose Llanos, Lynn University (FL)

Rose Llanos recently reflected on Florida’s Government Relations Committee work this past year and their hopes for the future.

As a first-generation Hispanic woman, I understand how the legislative process can be overwhelming. Yet I also know how imperative it is to have an active role in the process, as it directly impacts the lives of those who are primarily most vulnerable and do not have a voice. Within Government Relations, I had the privilege to work alongside educators from primary to higher education who have refused to allow legislative changes without advocacy on behalf of the needs of our students and faculty. 

As a result, the committee worked this year to integrate different voices of our membership to lead events that celebrated the uniqueness of their heritage as well as creating space for the contribution of their own academic thought and educational priorities. With this in mind, our agenda for the government relations committee this year included: highlighting financial aid access for our students, celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month, empowering members with resources and tools needed to prepare to vote, and focusing on ways to open up opportunities for our community by lobbying at the capitol. 

It has been and will continue to be a difficult year for us as educators, yet we will remain committed to our work to continue serving our students. Thank you to those who have supported our committee and continue to believe in the work we do. I am honored to be part of this community of students and professionals who aspire to create meaningful change. The Government Relations Committee in Florida will continue to work to hold those in leadership accountable for the decision-making taking place that affects us on a daily basis. While we have our work cut out for us, I have hope that within this association we can continue to support and live out our values.

Today’s Reading

Reflections from SACAC’s Government Relations Committee

We recently asked our State Chairs why it is important for SACAC to do Government Relations work as well as why they personally chose to do the work. Check out what they had to say:

Because higher education is inherently political, and the lives of the students we serve will be forever impacted by the decisions made by legislatures and boards of governors in our states.” – Deb Ryan, NC

“The SACAC Government Relations Committees choose causes for which to advocate that affect both sides of the desk. It’s important to be aware of the current legislation that affects our students so that we can raise awareness and continue to challenge our state to do better for them. I care about promoting equity in this process. I also enjoy the collaboration that this volunteer work promotes.I’ve enjoyed getting to work with committee members from private and public schools as well as CBOs and non-profits. It has been a good way to channel some observations and frustrations that I’ve had as a higher education professional in a meaningful way.” – Mason Brown, TN

“Making sure our members feel empowered to speak to their representatives is vital to our ability to continue to advocate for our students. Many people are nervous about speaking to their representatives; however, by providing opportunities for them to learn about the initiatives and bills in their state that could impact their students, we help SACAC members gain confidence and comfort in this role. I continue to do this work because I believe in the importance of ensuring our students have a voice in spaces where they may not have access.” – Erin Layton, GA 

“I believe if we do not speak up, our state will suffer for it. Practitioners are key in forming informed policy that benefits students, the state, and schools. That is why I find this so rewarding and so required. At the same time, I continue to volunteer because I see it as a learning opportunity for myself to learn from other practitioners.” – Andrew Colson, AL 

A Member’s Perspective

Affirmative Action in College Admissions: The Long & Winding Road

Submitted by Bill Pruden, JD, MA, Ravenscroft School (NC)

As the nation, and especially the college admissions world, awaits the Supreme Court’s decision in the Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill race-based affirmative action cases, it might be wise to take a look at the history that informs the Court’s deliberations and has brought both the country and higher education to this point.

While much of what is now a more than half century long battle has been fought in the courts and it is the justices of the Supreme Court whose words we are all awaiting, we must remember that it did not start there, and in fact involves more than the law.

Indeed, not surprisingly it is also an issue that has been contested in the court of public opinion where a different narrative, one marked by charges of reverse discrimination as well as a constant reliance upon Martin Luther King’s declaration, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” have competed with President Lyndon Johnson’s eloquent early explanation of what affirmative action is and why it was and is needed.

On June 4, 1965, before an audience at Howard University, the HBCU whose law school had been the engine behind the legal campaign that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education, Johnson, who was in the midst of bringing the Voting Rights Act to fruition declared that “Freedom is not enough. You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race and then say ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

He then went on to explain that the effort to respond to those continuing inequities required the government and others–businesses, colleges and schools, etc.—to take “affirmative action” to help bridge that gap. Johnson recognized that “Ability is stretched or stunted by the family that you live with, and the neighborhood you live in – by the school you go to and the poverty or the richness of your surroundings. It is the product of a hundred unseen forces playing upon the little infant, the child, and finally the man” all of which he recognized must be considered as efforts to pursue equality were undertaken.

Johnson followed this speech finalizing the enactment of the Voting Rights Act later that summer and then issuing an executive order on Affirmative Action in September, and while this idea of affirmative action as laid out in that executive order focused on the Labor Department and employment, the concept and its applications evolved and were put into wider practice. It was quickly recognized that in no area of American life was it more applicable than in American higher education, where little more than a decade after the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education educational inequality remained a widespread reality and the integration of some of the South’s major colleges having come about only after often-violent clashes and under the watch of the nation’s armed forces.  For better or worse, the cases now before the Supreme Court represent only the latest efforts of a campaign well over a half century old.

That being said, as observers, analysts, educators, and future college applicants wait anxiously for the Court to end the suspense and issue a decision that clears the air, that may not happen. Indeed, it is important to recognize that Supreme Court rulings often leave as many questions as they deliver answers. Arguably that is part of the reason that this issue is before the High Court yet again, as its earlier rulings all left matters unresolved, a reality that all but guaranteed that another bite at the apple for the determined opponents of the now long-time approach to crafting a college class.

It was the astute Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville who observed in 1835 that “Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question,” and so it was with affirmative action and admissions when in 1978, the justices ruled on a challenge to the admissions process of the Medical School of the University of California, Davis.

The case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) arose from the desire of Allan P. Bakke, an engineer and former Marine officer who, despite being in his early 30s, sought to pursue a medical career.  He was denied admission, arguably, at least in part, because of his age.  However, after a second denial by the University of California, Davis, he sued in state court challenging the constitutionality of the school’s affirmative action program, one which featured the set aside of 16 of its 100 seats for minority students. The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bakke, saying the program violated the rights of white applicants and ordered Bakke admitted. The University of California system appealed to the Supreme Court.

The court’s decision in Bakke proved to be a landmark decision as well as one that made clear the complexity of the issue. The Court was deeply split with four of the Justices totally supporting Bakke, while four others, led by civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall, supporting the school’s affirmative action program.  In the end, it came down to Justice Lewis Powell whose opinion for the Court upheld the concept of affirmative action, announcing that race could legitimately be one of several factors considered in admissions decisions, but at the same time declaring that the outright exclusion as reflected in quotas and the 16-spot set aside was unconstitutional.

Continuing into the 1980s and 1990s, Bakke remained the law of the land, and while there were a number of court decisions related to affirmative action, they were generally in employment-related areas and the Supreme Court would not hear another higher ed admission related case for a quarter of a century.  But given that the intervening years had seen a number of states adopt policies prohibiting the use of race in admissions, and while a lower court ruling in Texas, a case the Supreme Court had refused to hear, had ended the Lone Star State’s use of race in admissions, leading to its adoption of a 10% plan that only heightened tensions around the whole issue, the stakes had risen to new heights when in 2002, the Court agreed to hear a pair of cases from the University of Michigan, one, Gratz v. Bollinger dealing with the university’s undergraduate admissions policies and Grutter v. Bollinger that addressed the policies of the university’s law school.

At the same time, the issue had however unconsciously shifted and while historic references made clear the connection to Johnson’s long-ago expressed need for and commitment to affirmative action, both the university’s argument and the large number of amici curiae briefs supportive of Michigan’s policies that came from some of the nation’s top corporations as well as the US Army, seemed to focus less on the minorities who would be the beneficiaries than on the whole university community.  The benefits that the race-conscious admissions had once been accorded to minority applicants had seemingly been replaced by the advantage to the community that would come from adding additional members of these formerly excluded and still underrepresented groups.

Indeed, while the Court found the undergraduate process unacceptable, its point-value additions based on certain factors not applicable or available to all, was seemingly too comparable to the set aside in Bakke in upholding the law school’s approach, one that considered race as one factor in a holistic review, was acceptable with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noting that an admissions process like the law school’s that favors “underrepresented minority groups” was not a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment so long as it took other factors into account and each applicant was judged on an individual basis.  But in an addition, O’Connor added that the Constitution “does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”

By a narrow 5-4 vote, the legitimacy of race as a consideration was allowed to live for another day, although O’Connor, however unintentionally, cast a pall over its future when she observed that “race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time,” adding that the Supreme Court “expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

O’Connor’s 25 years are almost up and the intervening time has done little to clarify the nation’s views on the issues of either affirmative action or diversity. In 2016 the Court heard a case from Texas, Fisher v. University of Texas, which challenged the use of race beyond the state’s 10% plan. In a 4-3 decision the Court said that university’s use of race as a consideration in the admissions process did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In an opinion authored by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the Court held that the University’s use of race as one factor in the holistic review used to fill the spots beyond the 10% plan was sufficiently narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest in line with the previously established precedents.

So, it is against that history that the Supreme Court is now considering the Harvard and UNC cases. And yet despite the limited Court action since Grutter, the issue has been a centerpiece of the culture wars that have played out in the interim. Indeed, notwithstanding the Court’s rulings, nine states now have laws prohibiting the use of affirmative action in admissions: California (1996), Washington (1998, rescinded 2022), Florida (1999), Michigan (2006), Nebraska (2008), Arizona (2010), New Hampshire (2012), Oklahoma (2012), and Idaho (2020).

And, of course, the Supreme Court in 2023, it is a very different court from the one that heard Grutter and even the one that heard Fisher. This one that includes only a single member who heard the Michigan cases, Justice Clarence Thomas, who by all accounts was a beneficiary of affirmative actions, has made clear both his resentment of that fact and his belief that it is both unconstitutional and bad public policy. At the same time, three new members have joined the court since Fisher was decided.

In the end, the road from Lyndon Johnson’s noble affirmation of the need for affirmative action to the anticipation that now hangs over the court’s ruling has been a long and winding one. It has also been one that reflects the long-time tensions that have marked the nation’s efforts–ones often facilitated and strengthened by higher education–to make real the promise of equality so much a part of our founding documents.

A Quick Word

Gems from the SACAC Annual Conference

“Navigating Conversations About Race-Conscious Admissions in a K-12 Setting”: Adrienne Oddi (NC), Ashley Armato (GA), and Shannon Barrilleaux (LA)

“I first had the idea for this session when I came to the realization that so many of the sessions and webinars on the upcoming Supreme Court case on race-conscious admissions were being led by individuals on the college side. I heard them loud and clear when they said that they needed high school counselors to join them in these conversations with families and partner with them in defending the merits of recruiting diverse classes.

One thing I’d like folks to take away from this session is that there is plenty of data that shows how difficult it has been for admissions offices at selective institutions to recruit and enroll diverse classes at the same levels as they did before state bans on race-conscious admissions. I know many admissions offices have been working long and hard to develop potential strategies depending on the specifics of the ruling, but it will be far from an easy fix if race-conscious admissions is completely struck down. I also want folks to leave the session with a better understanding of the history of race-conscious admissions in our country and more equipped to engage in conversations with various stakeholders on this topic.” -Ashley Armato

“Recruiting & Retaining the Next Generation of Admissions Professionals”: Elizabeth Ballew (SC), Katherine Hilson (SC), Maria Elena Ornelas (TN), and Annie Wells (TN)

“Funny story, my colleague Maria and I discussed this topic back in 2019! She had the idea for the presentation, and we toyed with this proposal for a few years before we submitted and were accepted on this important and timely topic.

University of South Carolina and Vanderbilt University have had success recruiting new admissions officers from graduate programs at their respective institutions, but also have retained these staff members with intentional exposure to the profession early in their undergraduate or graduate career. Thinking creatively and being open-minded about positions in your office may provide opportunities for recruiting and retaining from within and cultivating great colleagues in the field!” -Katherine Hilson

“Bringing the Community Into Community-Based Organizations”: LaShawn Robertson (NC) and Lucy Smith (NC)

“What has happened this year is that we have partnered with the Charlotte community to do a series called professional development by which the companies send representatives to discuss their college choices and career field and how they are able to be successful within those choices.

To sum up my session, I would remind them that we have one goal in mind: educate our students and fill their backpacks with as many resources as possible.” -LaShawn Robertson

The Southern Scope is brought to you by the SACAC Communication Advisory Board (CAB):

Joseph Blassberg, The Greene School (FL)
Sean Kilgore, Georgia Tech (GA)
Samantha Krietemeyer, Houston Academy (AL)
Melissa Waller, Crosby Scholars Rowan (NC)
Lindsey Waters, Christ Church Episcopal School (SC)
Rachel West, Agnes Scott (GA)
Kayla Williams, Dillard University (LA)

Interested in serving on the Communications Advisory Board (CAB)? Complete the application by August 1, 2023.

Questions, comments, or story ideas: [email protected]