CHAPEL HILL (July 27, 2023) – If ever there was a contrast between those who want students at the University of North Carolina to represent all of North Carolina and those who don’t, it was on full display last Thursday with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told board members the university is taking steps to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last month that bans race-conscious admissions. The university intends to comply with the law while also striving to maintain its tradition of access for all students, he said.
“That means that race will not be a factor in admissions at the University,” Guskiewicz said. He added that the university will eliminate “check-box data” regarding race from student applications.
Board Vice Chair John Preyer confronted the chancellor as he completed his remarks.
“For nine years, we’ve spent in the neighborhood of $35 million to lose in a case … where we were found to be in violation of the 14th Amendment,” Preyer said.
“Why did we do that? How did we get there? … It turned out that ‘the good fight’ was against the law,” he said. “I have great concern about our entire admissions process … because what we were doing was wrong.”
Writing for the Court’s majority in striking down race-conscious admissions at Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. drew a distinction between judging an individual student and viewing the student as part of a class.
“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” Roberts wrote.
But the Chief Justice also warned universities not to use application essays as an end-around to racial selection.
“Universities may not simply establish through the application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today,” he wrote. “What cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.”1
A WEEK AFTER the court’s decision, Guskiewicz announced an expansion of financial aid at UNC-Chapel Hill to cover all tuition and required fees (about $9,000 a year) for in-state students from households that make less than $80,000, starting with incoming students in 2024.
The chancellor said the university will try to expand access to North Carolinians; it hired five “outreach officers” to work in poor communities in 27 counties to reassure families that the university is affordable.
“We want the best students to know that a UNC-Chapel Hill education is a possibility for them,” he said.
“Our responsibility to comply with the law does not mean we will abandon our fundamental values as a university. We are and will remain passionately public, and we will ensure that every student who earns admission to Carolina can come here and thrive. Our University’s commitment to access and affordability and supporting a culture of belonging for everyone does not change with last week’s ruling.”2
IN AN APPARENT PUSHBACK to that initiative, the Board of Trustees took up a resolution Thursday backed by its Audit and Compliance Committee Chair, Marty Kotis.
“The University shall not unlawfully discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, genetic information, or veteran status in its admissions, hiring and contracting; and…
“The University shall not ‘establish through application essays or other means’ any regime of or encourage heuristics and/or proxies premised upon race-based preferences in hiring or admissions. If the University considers the personal experience of applicants for admission, each applicant ‘must be treated based on his or her experience as an individual – not on the basis of race.’”3
THE ONLY BOARD MEMBER who opposed the resolution was Ralph Meekins, a lawyer from Shelby, who urged fellow board members to discuss its implications in closed session with the university’s lawyers.
“I see significant legal ramifications going forward,” Meekins said.
Kotis replied: “The punchline with this resolution is that to end discrimination, you have to end discrimination.”
Meekins then “implore(d)” the board to consult with its legal counsel.
“I know for a fact that this resolution goes well beyond the Supreme Court decision,” he said, “and if you talk to any lawyer, they’ll tell you the same.”
With no further discussion, the board proceeded to adopt the resolution in a voice vote.
EVEN BEFORE THE VOTE, Student Body President Christopher Everett seemed to foreshadow its outcome. The university will always follow the law, Everett told the Board, but he hopes it remains within reach for all students.
“Students across our campus deserve to believe that they belong at Carolina,” he said. “The truth is, a lot of students are scared for the future of our campus – both current and prospective.”
1 https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/22pdf/20-1199_hgdj.pdf; https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/29/us/politics/college-application-essay-race.html.