After Affirmative Action Ruling, Vermont Colleges Say They're Committed to Diversity | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice


After Affirmative Action Ruling, Vermont Colleges Say They're Committed to Diversity


Published June 30, 2023 at 2:51 p.m.

University of Vermont - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • University of Vermont
In the hours after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, four Vermont institutions of higher ed pledged to continue to foster diversity and inclusion in their campus communities.

The schools — Middlebury College, Champlain College, Saint Michael's College and the University of Vermont — described plans to evaluate applicants "holistically" but were less specific about steps they'd take to ensure that diversity.

In its 6-3 decision, with conservative justices in the majority, the Supreme Court ruled that "race-conscious" admissions programs at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina were unlawful, marking the end of over 50 years of affirmative action policies. The decision, which limits how race is considered in the admissions process, could make it increasingly difficult for schools to increase their diversity.

"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," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. "We have never permitted admissions programs to work in that way, and we will not do so today."

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the court, blasted the decision in a blistering dissent that called it "a tragedy for us all."

"Although formal race-linked legal barriers are gone, race still matters to the lived experiences of all Americans in innumerable ways, and today’s ruling makes things worse, not better," she wrote.

The decision found that using race in the admissions process violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. But the ruling could make the college application essay all the more important. Applicants can still discuss race in essays, even if the ruling bans race as a determining factor in the admissions process.

"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.

Middlebury College, which uses affirmative action in its admissions, pointed to that section of Roberts' ruling in a letter to the school community about the high court's decision.

"We will abide by the law as we stay true to our mission and commitment to create and maintain an inclusive community with full and equitable participation for all," president Laurie Patton wrote. "As shared in our spring message about inclusive admissions, diverse communities are more creative and rigorous in their deliberations and able to fulfill their mission more effectively. That value is core to our mission, and we will continue to be mission driven in our recruitment of the best students from across the nation and the world."

Patton also said the school will implement the necessary steps to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision in the coming weeks, but, when asked, the college declined to comment on specifics.

Middlebury recently announced the continuation of its test-optional policy, in which applicants who don't submit SAT or ACT scores are still given "full and equal consideration." The program started as a three-year pilot program during the pandemic and has been re-upped for another three years.

Middlebury directly cited the policy as a critical component of increasing diversity and accessibility.

"Applications will continue to be evaluated holistically based on a number of criteria, including grades, recommendations, community engagement, co-curricular activities, and essays," the school wrote in its announcement.

Data from the last 10 years show that Middlebury has been steadily increasing its diversity. Last year, 52 percent of students admitted in the class of 2026 were people of color — a 5 percentage-point increase from the class of 2025, according to the school’s website.

As of the fall of 2022, Middlebury's entire student body was 56.4 percent white, 31.6 percent "underrepresented minority" and 11.9 percent international. Ten years earlier, the percentage of white students sat at 70.7 percent, underrepresented minority students made up 19.3 percent, and 10 percent were international.

"Using race as one factor among many has allowed Middlebury to welcome classes with students from a wider range of backgrounds and perspectives than the Middlebury of the early 20th century," Julia Ferrante, associate vice president for public affairs, wrote in an email to Seven Days.

It's unclear if the University of Vermont uses affirmative action in its admissions policies, but the racial makeup of its student body has stayed relatively the same over the past decade: around 81 percent white. That's more diverse than the state as a whole, which is about 94 percent white, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

“While today’s decision must be carefully absorbed, at the University of Vermont, our commitment to inclusive excellence will not change,” UVM president Suresh Garimella said in a written statement. “Our university is better because of the diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and ideas our community comprises.”

Race is not a factor in Saint Michael’s College's admissions process.

"Rather, we consider each student’s lived experiences — and especially are interested in students who want to have a social impact through service, social justice, and bringing communities together," Elizabeth Murray, associate director of public relations, said in an email.

Murray didn't immediately have data on the racial makeup of the student body, but said "our community is predominantly comprised of people who identify as white, aligning with the racial diversity of Vermont and the other colleges in the state."

Murray added that "diversity — including racial diversity — has been and continues to be a focus of our recruitment efforts."

Champlain College uses race as a factor in its admissions process. The school did not provide exact figures but said its racial diversity has remained steady for the past five years.

Champlain said in a statement that it's "discouraged by the Supreme Court's decision to limit the consideration of race in the college admission process."

"By admitting and enrolling a diverse student body at our institution, we encourage our community members to hear from, learn with, and grow alongside individuals with different life experiences," the college said.

Data from the University of Michigan and the University of California, where race-conscious admissions have been banned for more than 15 years, show a stark decline in diversity. At Michigan, Black undergraduate enrollment declined to 4 percent in 2021 from 7 percent in 2006, despite its special admissions office in Detroit meant to recruit Black students, according to a brief submitted to the Supreme Court. Native American enrollment, once as high as 1 percent, dropped to 0.11 percent in 2021, the brief said.

The brief also said that in 2021, the entering first-year class at the University of California, Berkeley, included 258 Black students and 27 Native American students out of a class of 6,931. The California higher ed system has spent more than $500 million since 2004 to increase diversity, without much success.

The high court's decision was denounced by top national Democrats, including President Joe Biden and former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) weighed in, too, tweeting that "institutional racism exists. It must be combatted. I urge colleges and universities to remain committed to recruiting and enrolling students of color."

At the local level, the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance also responded, saying the decision "
disregards the persistent racial disparities in education but also threatens the progress made in achieving racial justice and equity across all sectors of society. "

"We call for a constitutional amendment within the state that explicitly protects equal protection under the law for all residents, regardless of their race or ethnicity," the group said in a statement. "This amendment would provide a firm foundation for advancing racial justice and dismantling systemic racism within Vermont."

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