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Responding to Trump rollback on affirmative action, local colleges stress commitment to diversity

July 14, 2018

In light of the Trump Administration’s decision to rescind Obama-era affirmative action guidelines, local colleges and universities — and the legislators that represent them — are reaffirming their commitment to diversity.

“Regardless of what happens in the current administration, our schools will always be open to anyone and everyone who has the will to pursue higher education,” Maribel La Luz, director of communications for Connecticut State Colleges and Universities, said in an email. “Having a diverse population that reflects the world we live in is one of the advantages of being educated at our CSCU institutions.”

Three Rivers Community Colleges, in Norwich, is one of 17 CSCU institutions.

In a joint letter on July 3, the Education and Justice departments rescinded seven policy guidelines on affirmative action that were put in place under the Obama administration.

Officials argued that the guidelines were executive overreach, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a written statement that the Supreme Court’s “written decisions are the best guide for navigating this complex issue.”

The New York Times reported that schools keeping affirmative action policies intact could face a lawsuit from the Justice Department, or loss of federal funding from the Education Department.

One set of guidelines for post-secondary education, for example, lays out advice for institutions to further the “compelling interest of achieving diversity.” This includes considering race-neutral approaches like socio-economic status or first-generation college status, developing pipeline programs with select high schools and targeting recruitment and outreach efforts.

Stephanie Reitz, spokeswoman for the University of Connecticut, said UConn “is assessing the impact of the rescinded directive” and still is reviewing the implications.

“It is important to note that UConn’s current admissions practices were formulated in, and continue to be guided by, the context of U.S. Supreme Court decisions on this topic,” she said in an email.

UConn submitted an amicus brief in the 2016 affirmative action case Fisher v. University of Texas, in which a white woman denied admission to the University of Texas claimed the school’s use of race as a factor in admissions violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In a 4-3 decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who recently announced his retirement, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the University of Texas.

“Representation among our community should reflect the rich diversity of ethnicity, race, gender, culture, religion, sexual orientation, and ability of not just the State of Connecticut, but our country and beyond,” the UConn brief stated. “We acknowledge the value of diversity in background and creed in its contribution to a creative and challenging educational environment.”

The brief acknowledged disparities in educational attainment between racial backgrounds but said it has no formal policy regarding race or ethnic considerations in admissions.

Jamie Romeo, vice president of enrollment management at Mitchell College, in an emailed statement said that college is “committed to having a student population that is diverse ethnically, socio-economically and in learning style.”

She added, “Through our admissions process, we strive to get to know each student individually and will continue to do so.”

Edward Osborn, spokesman for Eastern Connecticut State University, said that the university doesn’t believe the rescinding of the guidelines will have an impact on admissions, because it hasn’t used race-related criteria to establish admissions.

Still, the university is proud of the diversity of its student body and faculty, he said. Students of color have gone from making up 17 percent of the student body in 2009 to 28 percent this year.

Historical context for affirmative action

John McKnight, dean of institutional equity and inclusion at Connecticut College, said he “certainly was not surprised” at the rollback of the guidelines by the Trump administration.

He noted that because it’s the summer and people are away, college officials have not had the time to sit together and digest the change but he thinks it probably will not impact practices at the college very much.

McKnight said that those in higher education will have to stay aware of changes being implemented, and challenge instances of misunderstanding or misinformation on affirmative action.

“There is a very important historical context for affirmative action,” he said, “and it’s one that we shouldn’t ignore: the fact that for centuries, certain racial groups were shut out of certain educational opportunities in this country.”

He stressed that race is one of “many important factors that go into a very complex matrix” in admissions.

Legislators weigh in

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, feels the repeal of the guidance is “overkill” and “gratuitous” because the guidance was simply meant to explain the day-to-day impact of the Fisher decision in plain English.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what the court does, but in the meantime, Fisher is still the law,” Courtney said.

In emailed statements, Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal had harsher words for the Trump Administration’s action.

“By rescinding these guidelines, the Trump administration has sent a deeply troubling message to schools and universities — promote diversity at your own risk,” Blumenthal said. “Thankfully, many universities and colleges in Connecticut and around the nation are standing tall and reaffirming their commitment to thoughtfully pursuing meaningful diversity in their student bodies.”

Murphy said that Trump and DeVos have made it clear that they don’t care about helping students of color.

“A diverse student body helps make our schools better, more inclusive places to learn,” he said. “Rolling back President Obama’s affirmative action guidelines brings us in the wrong direction, and I hope schools in Connecticut continue to commit to affirmative action policies.”

e.moser@theday.com

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