Trustees for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill voted on Thursday to bar the consideration of race in admissions and hiring, a decision that came just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that the university’s race-conscious application process was unconstitutional.
Notably, the resolution passed by the trustees said that the university must not adopt “proxies premised upon race-based preferences in hiring or admissions,” such as through admissions essays.
The vote is the latest sign that the court’s decision, which called out commonplace but fiercely debated affirmative action programs as unlawful, is reverberating through American higher education. As admissions offices scramble to comply with the ruling, applicants have faced an uncertain entry process, and colleges have also come under pressure to end legacy admissions programs that give preferential treatment to the children of alumni.
And it reflects the increasingly fraught politics of higher education across the country, in places including North Carolina, where the Republican-controlled legislature has regularly been at odds with the state’s flagship campus in Chapel Hill.
The North Carolina resolution was especially significant because that university was at the center, along with Harvard, of the challenge to affirmative action at the Supreme Court. North Carolina trustees said in their resolution this week that the university could not “unlawfully discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment” to, people based on their race or other protected status.
“I think the punchline of this resolution is that to end discrimination, we have to end discrimination,” Trustee Marty Kotis said. “And that’s what we’re seeking to do. That’s what the court had ruled.”
But the approval was not unanimous. Trustee Ralph Meekins Sr. told his colleagues that he believed the action was too hasty and could lead to legal risk for the university. He said that “this resolution goes well beyond the Supreme Court ruling, and if you talk to any lawyer, they’ll tell you the same.”
Many universities have long considered race as one factor among many in deciding which students to admit. Defenders of the practice argue that colleges benefit from having students with more varied life experiences, and that using affirmative action allows students from historically disadvantaged groups, including Black, Hispanic and Native American people, a fairer chance to attend prestigious schools.
But opponents of affirmative action have repeatedly challenged the concept in court, describing it as unfair to white and Asian applicants and in conflict with the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court’s six conservative justices agreed in their ruling last month.
“The Harvard and U.N.C. admissions programs cannot be reconciled with the guarantees of the equal protection clause,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “Both programs lack sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race, unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping and lack meaningful end points.”
Fallout from the ruling has been widespread.
Colleges have re-evaluated not just their admissions processes, but also scholarships awarded in part based on race. And legacy admissions programs for the children of alumni, which often benefit wealthier, white applicants, have come under renewed criticism.
The Education Department announced this week that it would investigate legacy admissions at Harvard. Officials at Wesleyan University and at the University of Minnesota’s flagship campus said they would no longer consider legacy status in the admissions process.
Just how far the Supreme Court’s ruling goes has been the subject of significant debate. At a conference on equal opportunity in education sponsored by the Department of Education this week, Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the Justice Department was working on an analysis of the decision for colleges. She said race could still be discussed during the admissions process, such as in the case of a Black applicant who writes about how a visit to a courthouse prompted an interest in civil rights law.
“The bottom line,” Ms. Clarke said, “is that institutions of higher education remain free to consider any characteristic of a student that bears on the institution’s admission decision, such as courage or determination, even if the student’s application tied that characteristic to his or her lived experience with race.”