c/o Wesleyan Admissions

c/o Wesleyan Admissions

The Supreme Court struck down affirmative action at colleges and universities across the country on Thursday, June 29, 2023. For over 50 years, affirmative action policies have enabled universities to employ race-conscious admissions tactics in order to increase campus diversity and acknowledge systemic injustices that have affected applicants. The Court sided with the conservative group Students for Fair Admissions (SSFA), ruling 6–3 in a case against the University of North Carolina (UNC) and 6–2 in a case against Harvard University. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself as she served on the board of overseers at Harvard.

The SFFA represented an anonymous group of Asian-American students rejected from Harvard and UNC, suing the two universities and arguing that their affirmative action policies intentionally discriminated against Asian-American applicants. The court declared that affirmative action was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which specifically outlines that race may never be used as a negative. In the dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the ruling went against the amendment’s original intentions.

President of Wesleyan University Michael Roth ’78 and Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Abdul-Malik Gonzalez ’96 expressed their determination to continue building a diverse community despite the ruling in a post published on Roth’s official blog the day of the decision.

“We are studying the decision to better understand how we can comply with the law while pursuing our mission,” Roth and Gonzalez wrote. “We are determined to create a diverse community, and our admission and financial aid teams have been preparing over the last several months to craft policies that will do that. While our ability to do this work has been undermined by today’s ruling, our values are unwavering.”

Other universities also responded to the ruling with a mix of dismay and resilience, and those involved in the lawsuit expressed their intentions to comply with the ruling while reaffirming their commitment to building diverse student bodies.

“I know our community creates strength from all our differences,” Chancellor of the University of North Carolina Kevin M. Guskiewicz wrote in a message to the UNC campus. “We can’t lose different perspectives and experiences in the classroom that give depth to our discussions and make our work impactful. In the months and years to come, we will continue to strive to build upon our vibrant community.”

Since there has not yet been an admissions cycle with the decision in effect, there is much uncertainty surrounding how exactly college admissions will change. The ruling prevents admissions offices from seeing the race or ethnicity an applicant may have marked on an application, but it does not forbid consideration of race if relayed through other parts of the application in relation to knowledge, skills, and personal attributes.

In line with this distinction, many universities are planning to introduce supplemental essay questions that will provide spaces for students to speak on how their racial identities have impacted them. One of Harvard’s new questions reads: “How will the life experiences that shape who you are today enable you to contribute to Harvard?” 

Wesleyan, however, will not be including such a question. 

“Here at Wesleyan, we made the decision early on to think through what the ramifications [of such an essay question] would be,” Gonzalez said in a panel on affirmative action held on Sept. 12, 2023. “We decided we would not have another essay…to not give students what could be another barrier. It privileges privilege, people who are in independent schools who have college counselors, who have resources, parents, others, and it disadvantages those who don’t, who may not have those same resources.”

Some students expressed support for Wesleyan’s decision to not add another application question, agreeing that it could place another unnecessary burden on underprivileged applicants.

“I feel that in my application essay, I talked about my life experiences and you can’t really do that without talking about race,” a member of an affinity group on campus who asked to remain anonymous said. “But not everyone wants to have that conversation.”

However, other students argued that the extra work would be worth the information that it would provide to admissions officers. 

“The fact is that the Supreme Court decision is such a monumental moment for the country and for college admissions, that I think it’s reasonable to ask all the applicants to reflect on it,” Jack ’25, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said. “So I think that colleges should take whatever action they can to include more students of color in the admission process.”

Another common approach that universities are taking is to scale up their outreach programs in order to reach more diverse schools, as universities have historically had more of a presence in wealthy, predominantly white schools. Gonzalez highlighted Wesleyan’s intention to expand outreach to so-called Title I high schools, which receive federal funding to support high percentages of low-income students.

“We’re working together to leverage messaging to travel together in groups to support organizations like QuestBridge, community-based organizations that are more local, to do outreach in those spaces to make sure that those students in those communities understand what our commitment is,” Gonzalez said. “So we’re going to have hopefully upwards of 100 QuestBridge students on campus in October, and another couple hundred in November from across the country from Title I organizations.”

Dean for Academic Equity, Inclusion, & Success and interim co-lead for the Office for Equity & Inclusion April Ruiz emphasized Wesleyan’s continuing effort to expand already existing programs helping to bring more students from underrepresented groups to campus.

“First Things First Pre-Orientation had its largest cohort of participants ever this year, with 85 students taking part in this program,” Ruiz wrote in an email to The Argus. “With thanks to support from the Office of the President, FTF Pre-Orientation has expanded greatly over the last three years—both in our capacity to invite all incoming FGLI students and include anyone who accepts the invitation, and in our breadth of programmatic offerings.”

Wesleyan was also recently awarded new five-year grants from the U.S. Department of Education to renew both its Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program and Upward Bound. The McNair Program supports current juniors and seniors at Wesleyan from identities underrepresented in the sciences and mathematics, and who hope to pursue graduate study in these fields. The Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math-Science programs at the University support first-generation and low-income high school students in Middletown and Meriden.

However, as many universities across the country are grappling with, there is no clear path forward in preserving the diverse student bodies that they have been able to enroll through affirmative action policies.

“[The ruling] was deeply disappointing because it overturned decades of legal precedent and will most certainly undermine our efforts to enroll more historically underrepresented students,” Gonzalez wrote in an email to The Argus.

The American public as a whole has been starkly divided on the issue of affirmative action. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that 33% of Americans approve of affirmative action, 50% disapprove, and 16% are not sure. With all this controversy, it’s no surprise that the Supreme Court was often surrounded by protesters around the time of the decision. 

At Wesleyan, the response to the decision has been overwhelmingly negative. Students who attended the panel described feeling nervous and uncertain, expressing consistent concern that the University will not be able to overcome the difficulties presented by the ruling. 

“I was definitely very upset, especially as a member of the Asian American community,” Jack said. “I feel like a lot of the logic and the decision and a lot of the discourse was pitting Asian American people against other people of color. And it just made me upset that my community was being used that way, by actors that are not within our community.”

Other students expressed their lack of confidence in how Wesleyan would respond to the change.

“Colleges can say whatever they want to say, it’s not the same as actually doing it,” the anonymous member of an affinity group said. “I’m not necessarily like, ‘Oh, they definitely won’t [take adequate action],’ but I’m definitely not, ‘Oh, they definitely will do it because they said they did.’ And so right now, I’m in a wait-and-see period. Not really optimism, not really pessimism, just kind of waiting.”

The need for decisive action on the part of the University has been a common thread among student responses to the Court’s decision.

“[I want the University to] not just wait for its students to do something but rather take the helm and have a response that shows that it wants to listen to its students, but simultaneously says what their view is,” another student who asked to remain anonymous said. 

Ruiz outlined the many efforts the University has undertaken to respond to the decision, from a working group that met during the 2022–23 academic year to several discussion events for students, faculty, and staff.

“Wesleyan was intentional in its approach to preparing for the [Court’s] decisions in these cases,” Ruiz wrote. “A working group of colleagues from across campus met regularly throughout last year to discuss a range of possibilities with these rulings, and to examine which dimensions of our work would be impacted and in what ways, and how we could uphold our values through it all.”

Nevertheless, without previous experience operating under the ruling, exactly what the coming years will look like for college admissions remains blurry for all those involved. Efforts to continue enrolling a diverse student body will likely change quickly and sporadically as admissions offices, activist groups, and students cope with the effects of the decision. 

“I feel like there’s a lot of energy from people who are really upset about the affirmative action decision,” Jack said. “And I hope that extends to Wesleyan. And I also hope it has staying power beyond just the students that are here now, that students in the successive classes, the next generation should be continuing this fight.”


Leo Bader can be reached at lbader@wesleyan.edu.

Cynthia Lei can be reached at clei@wesleyan.edu.