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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Under Siege

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Theodore Johnson
September 25, 2023

This year has been quite tumultuous for anything related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), especially within higher education. Between diversity offices being banned in Texas institutions of higher education (IHE) and a bill banning DEI initiatives in Floridian public colleges, DEI, particularly equity, has been under siege. The hits keep coming with the era of affirmative action effectively ending due to a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s historic decision ended race-conscious admission programs, altering the landscape of IHEs within the United States for years to come. In short, race can no longer be considered as one of the many factors when deciding which qualified applicants are to be admitted to the IHE.

The landmark decision has drawn a clear line in the sand amongst the Supreme Court justices. Those within the majority opinion contend that considering race is in opposition to the Constitution whereas those who dissented opine that not considering race further propagates the inequity extant within the United States and its educational system. Some of the Justices believe IHEs in our country should adopt “colorblind” criterion in the admissions processes. Such a colorblind approach masks structural racism and does more harm than good for equity-based initiatives such as affirmative action. The colorblind approach is essentially a cop-out for those who uphold it and only breeds further inequity. Within the academy, being colorblind can be demeaning to students identifying as racial or ethnic minorities. Educators or administrators claim to be allies in front of them but their actions and/or words signal the contrary. This is important: contradictory behaviors and words destroy social capital built with minorities regardless of attempts to apologize or remedy the issue, resulting in a zero-sum game for equity initiatives.

The court’s decision has adverse implications for students who wish to attend and enroll in certain IHEs and, in particular, students who are from disadvantaged communities and/or identify as racial minorities. There has been a notable decline in the number of Black American applicants, which is concerning given the fact that Black Americans account for only 10 percent of undergraduate degrees, 12 percent of graduate degrees and seven percent of doctorate degrees earned. Black Americans already are not pursuing higher education at large rates and the removal of race consideration likely will further diminish the participation rates of Black Americans wishing to pursue higher education. All is not lost however, as every IHE will not necessarily be impacted by the ruling because they still will retain some autonomy over their admissions process, but this autonomy will be severely hampered.

To help overcome the negative implications of the decision, the NAACP solicited colleges and universities to sign a “Diversity No Matter What” pledge. The pledge is a response to the court’s decision to ensure IHEs continue to foster environments that are representative of the populations they serve, especially for underrepresented students. In a similar vein, many university presidents wrote statements to contest the court’s decision, solidifying their commitment to keeping their campuses diverse, inclusive, accessible and equitable. Such a stance was prominent amongst HBCUs, which were founded to educate the freed descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States. Many HBCU presidents expressed their immense dissatisfaction with the recent decision, but view it as a unique opportunity for HBCUs to capitalize on providing access to education for racial minorities, particularly, Black Americans.

The decision provided an opportune platform for HBCUs, which have received historic funding (to build capacity) during the Biden-Harris Administration, to recruit minorities. The rationale underpinning this stems from the fact that minorities, who will be rejected from certain predominantly white institutions on the basis of no longer considering race as a factor for admission, will likely opt to attend a HBCU to pursue their program of interest. Although this notion insinuates recruitment will be a byproduct of the inequity resulting from the court decision, the fact remains that HBCU recruitment will increase, which may yield unintended (positive) consequences for racial minorities and, specifically, Black Americans, who attend an HBCU for various reasons (e.g., campus culture, affordability and support). Therefore, there is a silver lining in this decision: spotlighting HBCUs and the impact these institutions have had on the U.S. educational system. This impact circles back to their origin: providing a place of refuge and access to a quality education for Black Americans and other minorities who were historically turned away from predominantly white institutions on the basis of race. Thus, navigating the decision and the terraforming landscape of higher education will be challenging, but if IHEs are committed to upholding the crux of affirmative action and remain steadfast in advancing equity, the U.S. educational system will weather this storm and not capsize. However, the ship will not emerge unscathed due to the ravaging impact of the waves of inequity.

Author: Theodore W. Johnson is a doctoral candidate pursuing a degree in public administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), an instructor within their aviation institute, and a Samya Rose Stumo National Air Grant Fellow for the Federal Aviation Administration. His research interests centralize social, racial and educational equity and inclusion with emphasis on the recruitment/retention of racial minorities to advance equity and promote opportunities in traditionally underrepresented fields such as aviation/aerospace. He serves on the board of directors for the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, is secretary for the American Society of Public Administration’s Section on Transportation Policy & Administration and is the advisor for the student chapter of University of Nebraska Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals. He can be reached at [email protected].

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