Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard: A Q&A With President Munson
by Nathan Lee Templeman | published Oct. 19th, 2023
Though universities implemented affirmative action to admit more students of color, the legacy of the practice remains controversial, even at RIT. The student body is 65% white and only 4.9% Black, begging the question of whether affirmative action accomplished its original goal.
Q&A WITH PRESIDENT MUNSON
In an interview with Reporter, President David Munson discussed what the end of affirmative action means for the university. He asserted early on that the recent Supreme Court ruling will not “have a big effect on how we do business at RIT,” as, according to him, race was never a factor in admissions.
Question: What role do you think higher education plays in helping students of color get opportunities to be successful?
Munson: "I have a very strong opinion that higher education provides enormous opportunity, and there are segments of society that haven't always been in a position to take advantage of that higher education. Those opportunities are not available to those segments. And this is not just a race-based discussion: it could be poor families, independent of race. It could be families and regions where maybe the school systems aren't all that great. And so I feel higher ed just offers incredible opportunity. I mean, your whole life can unfold before you after you get a degree from a reputable school.
At RIT, we have a lot of first-generation students. We also have a lot of students from poor families, and we sometimes judge that criterion by looking at what fraction of our student body is Pell-eligible, and it's around 30%. If we look at our peer schools, that number is more like 15% on average — some of our peer schools are all the way down closer to 10%, so we have a lot of students from poor families. And we love to see those students come here and succeed.
When one of those students graduates with an RIT degree, it often changes the entire course of their family: their brothers, their sisters, everybody. And so higher-ed provides a lot of opportunity, and I have a strong personal opinion that that opportunity has not been uniformly available to everybody in the US citizenry. It's part of the job of higher ed to try to even that playing field a little bit."
Q: One instance of racial demographics ... influencing recruitment is outreach to local schools, right?
M: "We have partnerships with quite a number of schools. Probably our most significant partnership is with Rochester Prep, a charter school in Rochester, and we do a lot of special things with and for those students. This is a program that is funded by one of our trustees because he believes in giving these types of students an opportunity. And so that's an example of a case where we put in extra effort and resources into recruiting from our particular pipeline school. The vast majority of those students are minority students, and the vast majority of [them] are from very poor families."
Q: Where does RIT fall into [the equation] between highly selective universities like Harvard, Yale [and] MIT?
M: "We've been working in the last several years to grow our applicant pool ... we’re working to get [the acceptance rate] down something closer to 50 [%]. We don't want to be an elite institution where we're just super hard to get into because we've always been a school that has attracted a lot of blue-collar [students] from small towns and villages ... Right now our selectivity is around 67, 68 % ... so we want for that to still be possible. But at the moment, obviously, our selectivity is nothing close to what you’d see at an Ivy League school.”
Munson predicted that the affirmative action ruling will mainly affect more selective schools, where the number of qualified applicants far exceeds those who are ultimately accepted.
“We’re not nearly that selective,” he said. "We admit at RIT almost every student that we think could succeed at the institution, and then we work hard to try to actually recruit them after that admissions decision.”
Q: What are your final thoughts on affirmative action?
M: "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are strong values of RIT, and they're going to remain as strong values ... [There are] some folks that think DEI is just a political slogan, and it's not. If you're a student from a minority group, it may be based on race, it may be based on gender preference [or] it may be based on other things. It's pretty hard to succeed in school unless you feel like you belong there, unless you're included, and we're very focused at RIT on working on elevating our graduation rates and having more and more of our students succeed here.
As part of that activity, a lot of it is about DEI and about overall mental health and student wellness ... Those activities are of enormous importance here, and we're not going to back away from those. If anything, we want to push harder and harder and make even more of our students successful.”
HISTORY OF AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
When discussing the recent decision, it is important to understand past debates and rulings on affirmative action. The practice dates all the way back to 1961 — in Executive Order 10925, President John F. Kennedy first used the term to force government contractors to hire white women and Black workers to government positions to “realize the national goal of ‘nondiscrimination.’”
Universities would eventually implement affirmative action policies in the 1960s and 1970s. Soon thereafter, Allan Baake, a rejected white applicant, sued the University of California, Davis for allegedly using racial quotas. The Supreme Court sided with the university and supported an affirmative action plan produced by Harvard, which created a holistic review system that included race as a factor. This shaped the modern system of affirmative action that was recently struck down.
In subsequent challenges to affirmative action, the Supreme Court retained its original position that affirmative action was an appropriate course to boost diversity.
Two criticisms became prevalent. First, affirmative action recognizes diversity as a way to offer different ideas in the classroom. Yet, according to Leah Shafer, a former staff writer for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the universities “have fully taken on this justification — to the point that, today they rarely mention the issue of inequality or even of a diverse leadership.” She added, “Perhaps because they’re worried about getting sued.”
The second was the perception that students of color were only accepted because of their skin color but were otherwise unqualified. A 1996 article published in STANFORD — an alumni magazine at Stanford — noted that the average white student admitted to Stanford scored 171 points higher than their Black counterparts. The authors argue that this disparity harms students of color by insinuating that they were admitted to offer “certain ideas or perspectives,” not because of their accomplishments.
However, nine states, including California in 1996, had banned affirmative action before the Supreme Court ruling, and the effects on diversity were clear. At the University of California, Berkeley, the percentage of Black undergraduate students dropped from 6% before the ban to just 3% after.
It is to be seen whether the ruling will further reduce diversity at RIT, or if the aftermath will be felt exclusively by more selective universities.