On June 29, 2023, in a 6–3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Harvard’s and the University of North Carolina’s admissions programs violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, as well as Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act.
The Court’s Ruling
In the cases Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina (the “Cases”), a group of Asian-American students brought suits against Harvard and UNC alleging anti-Asian discrimination in the schools’ admissions process. In previous affirmative action cases, the Supreme Court held that universities could utilize “race-conscious” admissions policies when deciding whether to admit a student.
The Supreme Court held that both universities’ admissions programs violated equal protection. While the Court had permitted race-based college admissions as an exception to the Equal Protection Clause in the past, it did so on the basis that such programs satisfy the “strict scrutiny” standard, could not utilize race as a stereotype, and had to be finite.
According to the Court, Harvard and UNC’s admissions programs failed on all three counts. The Court stated in its opinion: “the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race.”
However, the Court explained that universities may consider an applicant’s explanation of how race has impacted their life and experiences as part of an application process, as long as this information is considered as part of an assessment of an applicant’s “character” or “unique ability to contribute to the university.”
The Court’s decision may have consequences beyond higher education and affect employers’ hiring and promotion policies across all sectors of the economy. Accordingly, employers should examine their approach to DE&I initiatives, particularly in the context of existing policies related to an organization’s diversity goals. Policies which consider race and ethnicity in a manner similar to Harvard and UNC should be carefully considered in light of the Court’s ruling.
This alert serves as a general summary and does not constitute legal guidance. Please contact us with any specific questions.