URI administration weighs in on potential affirmative action changes

As the United States Supreme Court nears its June verdict where it will reportedly reexamine the use of affirmative action in University admissions, many college admission departments are anticipating the possible impacts a court reversal could have on their admissions.

Affirmative action is the favoring of individuals belonging to particular groups subject to discrimination as a response to past transgressions. This policy has helped to prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion or country of origin in numerous settings, such as with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed by former President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to Merriam-Webster.

In 2013, the Supreme Court delivered its decision on the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, where they declared that the admissions program used by the University of Texas Austin was lawful under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This case served as a major victory for affirmative action and created the judicial precedent for the practice to occur in college admissions.

The idea of affirmative action is gaining relevance in recent months in the context of the college admissions process, according to various news sources such as the New York Times and NPR. The reason for why this is the case is not a coincidence, but of good intentions, says Dean Libutti, associate vice president for enrollment and student success at the University of Rhode Island. 

“The broader perspective on this is universities looking to create a diverse community,” Libutti said. “Perhaps one that is a microcosm of the greater society that helps create a learning environment where students from different backgrounds and experiences are able to connect in the classroom.”

The Supreme Court’s upcoming case examines the use of affirmative action in two schools in particular: Harvard University of Massachusetts, and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, both of which, according to their respective admissions sites, are highly selective institutions. While there is potential for a large impact on college admissions across the country should the practice be repealed, not all schools are exactly similar to the two cited. 

“Keep in mind the schools they’re talking about,” Libutti said. “Harvard has 61,000 applications; they admit 3%. That means that 1,900 students will be admitted, or three out of every 100. So that’s what is in the press: who they are going to decide to let in.” 

With URI, the admissions practices are different. According to URI’s admissions page, in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, URI received 25,400 applications and admitted 76% of them to form a first-year class of 3,340. Libutti believes this to be a positive practice of URI.

“URI is a very different university than Harvard, and I think that’s personally a great thing for us,” Libutti said. ”About what we do and how we provide access and opportunity. We are a state school. We should have an enrollment that is respectful of the state and the greater community.” 

Affirmative action is not just limited to college admissions, however, and also has a role in employment.

Beginning in 1948, when former President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, which prohibited discrimination on the bases of race, color, religion and national origin in the armed forces and federal workforce, affirmative action has been used to promote equal opportunity for all applicants, regardless of protected status and to create a workforce that is representative of the communities it serves.

Dorca Paulino-Smalley is the director of URI’s Office of Equal Opportunity, which was established just last year, formerly known as the Office of Affirmative Action, Equal Opportunity and Diversity. She said that the University’s goal of creating a diverse working environment will not change, regardless of the court’s decision.

“The University of Rhode Island is committed to cultivating an environment that promotes equal opportunity for all and this commitment will not change if the court strikes down affirmative action,” Paulino-Smalley said. 

This is due to Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibit discrimination in service delivery programs, or positions including healthcare, education and other administrative positions and all employment activities. Regardless of what will occur in June, URI will continue to enforce all applicable civil rights laws and regulations by promoting equal opportunity in service delivery and employment, Paulino-Smalley said.

While the use of affirmative action in college admissions is being called into question by the Supreme Court, Libutti believes that what it helps to create on college campuses should be enough to justify its use. 

“Affirmative action is well beyond just the decisions between Harvard and North Carolina in this case, there’s no question about it,” Libutti said. “You can see affirmative action in so many different places, like employment. The University strives to have a student body that is representative of Rhode Island and the world beyond, and we hope to have faculty and staff that represent that as well.”