August 7, 2023 8:00am

Race should be a factor in admissions and new UNC policy goes too far, Triangle members say

Meanwhile, members aren't fans of legacy applicants getting preferential treatment

Photo of Leigh Tauss
Research Triangle Correspondent

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees swiftly complied with June’s Supreme Court ruling reversing longstanding affirmative action policies, but most Triangle respondents think race should be a factor in admissions and that the new policy goes too far.

As usual, the Supreme Court’s decision was split across ideological lines. Examining racially conscious admissions policies at UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University, the court’s six conservative justices rationalized that due to a lack of “measurable standards” race is often employed in a “negative manner” resulting in stereotyping, according to the majority opinion from Justice John Roberts Jr.

Liberal justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ketanji Brown Jackson and Elena Kagan dissented.

The ruling undoes decades' worth of public policy and legislation intending to increase diversity in higher education and give historically underprivileged groups a leg up in the admission process. Now, schools throughout the country are scrambling to rethink their own practices.

UNC’s Board of Trustees accomplished that in record time. Within a month, the board passed a new policy strictly barring the use of race, ethnicity and sex from consideration in admissions and hiring. But some feel the sweeping change goes too far, including dissenting board member Ralph Meekins Sr., who claimed the new policy “goes well beyond” the court’s ruling.

Most folks who responded to this month’s survey seem to agree with Meekins and think race should have a place in admissions. They also worry what the immediate ramifications for diversity at the state’s flagship school.

Most of our applicants disagree with the court’s decision, but on both sides feelings were strong. Sixty percent feel ––31 percent strongly and 29 percent somewhat –– that an applicant’s race should be a potentially preferential factor in admissions, while 25 percent were strongly against any consideration of race. Another 9 percent were somewhat against using race as a factor and just 6 percent were neither for or against it.

While the Supreme Court’s decision makes clear outright preference shouldn’t be given to any racial group, it does leave some ambiguity as to whether the topic of an applicant's race could be considered as a factor if that applicant chooses to write about it in their personal experiences in an admissions essay. UNC’s policy explicitly forbids any “through essays or other means,” preferred treatment based on race.

A combined 60 percent of members disagreed with the policy, of which 43 percent strongly disagreed. On the side, 27 percent were in strong support of the policy, with another 6 percent somewhat agreeing with the change. Once again, there was little neutral ground –– just 6 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

Digging deeper, just 25 percent of members responded that race should never be a factor and admissions should be as colorblind a process as possible. But the largest portion of folks surveyed thinks there should be some wiggle room when it comes to race, with 40 percent of members saying that while it shouldn’t be the default, race should be considered in some cases. Another 35 percent said race should always be factored and diverse applicants should be given preference.

That’s 75 percent that, either some or most of the time, think race should matter when it comes to admissions.

Not a single member did not have an opinion on the matter.

In terms of ramifications, our members have a pretty clear point of view: more than half of the folks surveyed feel it will result in fewer non-white students at UNC-Chapel Hill. Thirty-seven percent think that will “definitely” be the case. Interesting, here there was a little neutrality. Eighteen percent think it might decrease diversity at the school, while 14 percent thought it probably would not have an impact. Just 6 percent were certain the policy wouldn’t decrease diversity.

According to federal data, more than half of UNC-Chapel Hill students are white. Asian students make up the second biggest racial group, at about 13 percent. Black students make up less than 10 percent of the student body, lagging far behind the state’s population, which is 22 percent.

The debate over affirmative action has thrown another controversial college admission policy into the spotlight: legacy students. More than half of our members don’t think the children of alumni should be given preferential treatment, with 37 percent taking a strong stance against such policies and another 21 percent somewhat disagreeing with the practice.

This time though, the opposing ca7mp did not feel as strongly. Just 4 percent were strong supporters of legacy admissions with another 21 percent somewhat supporting such policies. More folks fell somewhere in the middle, with 17 percent picking the natural option.

If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that affirmative action is a topic that’s been enshrined in the public discourse long enough for most people to have formed strong opinions. For the majority of our members, this means an acknowledgment that race is an unavoidable factor in admissions and should not be ignored.

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About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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