Monday, April 22, 2024

‘The university is incorrect’: Panel urges UNCW to act regarding affirmative action ruling

UNCW’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion formed a panel to address the fallout associated with the case Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. (Port City Daily/file photo)

WILMINGTON — Faculty, staff, students and community members crowded into UNCW’s Congdon Hall on Tuesday in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action admission practices. 

READ MORE: NDA not an option for ousted dean, UNCW claims no retaliation

Though not speaking on behalf of the university, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion formed a panel to address the fallout associated with the case Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. The Court ruled 6-3 with the plaintiff, a nonprofit against affirmative action, that race cannot be a determining factor in admission decisions. 

UNC-Chapel Hill was also part of the case and in the aftermath, the university announced it would offer free tuition and fees to students whose families make less than $80,000 a year. 

UNCW has not issued any statement or planned action based on the ruling, something criticized by some panelists — which included Centro Hispano Director Edel Segovia, African American history professor Glen Harris, political science professor Steve Meinhold, and UNCW general counsel John Scherer. 

“I can take a leap of faith and say our university is incorrect,” Harris said. “We are one of the 17 constituent universities of this system, that … we haven’t made a public statement — it’s surprising. We should take a stand and that shouldn’t have been a reactive stand. That should be a proactive stance.” 

Harris goes on to say the university should have had at least two statements prepared for after the ruling, with the understanding that the Supreme Court’s decision was not a surprise. 

But much of the conversation was devoted to understanding the arguments used to strike down affirmative action and pose questions on how the university would comply while still advancing equity.

Meinhold expanded on this thought, noting the Supreme Court is mythologized as a protector of minority rights, yet is ultimately a majoritarian institution. He noted that nine states, despite historical political leanings, have already banned affirmative action and the Supreme Court was completing the path laid out for it. 

He also pointed to the futility of relying on the justice system to rule in favor of racial advancement.

“The Supreme Court was never — and will not be in the future — a particularly hospitable place to defend race-based government action,” Meinhold said. “If you came to the panel today and you want to try to advance the cause that I share, we won’t do it by taking cases to the Supreme Court.”

In the meantime, Segovia worried that applications where students use their race to represent themselves could be rejected to avoid perception of racial bias. She pushed for protocols in place to guide admission staff on the matter. 

“How do we not artificially just pull back to sterilize the process of admission?” Segovia asked. 

Several questions submitted to the panel also questioned if or how the university would need to change its recruitment programs geared toward diversity. This includes Coastal Roots, a new program to prepare incoming freshmen with a range of hardships. 

While it’s unclear how these initiatives will be affected, Segovia noted it was important to continue to do “the work that we’re doing and not shut the door on ourselves before the door shuts on us.” 

Ahead of the panel discussion, Port City Daily asked the university if it plans to change its admissions process. 

UNCW spokesperson Krissy Vick provided the following statement:

“Our admissions review process is inclusive and includes room for us to adjust to the impacts of this case. UNCW has always valued the entire student; we take a holistic approach to reviewing applications, and we invite students from all backgrounds, beliefs, income levels and life experiences to become Seahawks.”  

Many universities are no doubt doing the same examinations as they try to find different ways to accommodate a wide range of students. As UNC has done, this could be a shift toward socioeconomic factors. Scherer noted it will be a challenge but not an impossible task.

“If we are committed enough and creative enough, I think we can make progress as far as ensuring that we are serving a diverse pool of students, staff and faculty,” Scherer said during the panel. 

According to the latest Diversity and Inclusion Annual Report, which gathered data from 2021-2022, UNCW has made incremental progress at gaining more faculty and students of color. 

There is a chance for the ruling to impact UNCW’s progress at balancing the racial makeup of its campus. Racially or ethnically diverse students increased from 3,444 to 3,491; staff of color increased from 301 to 306 and faculty of color from 162 to 165. International students increased by 70 students. 

The number of students accessing services through the Disability Resources Center increased from 874 to 1326 over the same time period, which was in part attributed to increased awareness and acceptance of mental health conditions. 

Still the university’s demographics remain more than 70% white students. 

Out of first-year students who return for a second year, Black students have the lowest number, retained at 75%, four percentage points below students of mixed race and seven points below white students. Asian and Hispanic or Latino students are both retained at a rate of 86%. 

“There hasn’t been a semester at this university, where the issue of race and students’ position on this campus has not been discussed by me in my classes directly and indirectly,” Harris said. “I’m talking about 20 years, 40 semesters, that question about race and how students of color are accepted on this campus or marginalized on this campus.” 

But other measures are being taken to tamp down on that as well.

The yet-to-be-passed Senate Bill 195 would require the university to remain “neutral” on political issues of the day. It is unclear if this would affect university employees and, therefore, conversations in the classroom. Or if it would affect the display of political statements on campus, such as what some perceive as contentious Black Lives Matter flags, as many departments decided to do during protests following the death of George Floyd in 2020. 

Still, the panelists urged audience members to use their platforms to “flex their intellect” on the topic and push for creative conversations and solutions.

“The intellect and intelligence in this room right now is overwhelming,” Harris said. “That we don’t have a conversation both with yourselves and amongst your friends, but also on the platform that you have, if you don’t use those platforms, to at least consistently flex your intellect on a topic like this, then what are you doing?”

Scherer also noted the issue of college admissions was still being litigated, namely the use of legacy admissions, or students with alumni parents. The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into the practice.

“There are ways for us to try to maintain and try to seek diversity without working specifically on race,” Scherer said. “It’s not easy. It’s not going to be something that we can do, but we have to be committed and we have to allocate the resources to do so.”


Reach out to Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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