President Iuliano Discusses Race-Conscious Admissions at Brown Bag Lunch

By Katie Oglesby, Editor-in-Chief

On Thursday, President Bob Iuliano spoke for the first lecture of the Brown Bag Lunch Series co-sponsored by the political science and public policy departments. 

Iuliano focused on the topic of “race-conscious admissions,” or what people more commonly know as “affirmative action.”

The topic is a timely one; there are two cases before the Supreme Court this year to determine if the use of race-conscious admissions by Harvard University and the University of North Carolina is constitutional. Iuliano is particularly knowledgeable about Harvard, having served as its Chief Legal Officer when Harvard was sued by Students for Fair Admissions in 2014. 

Iuliano explained that he wasn’t talking to students about it because of solely his law experience, but also his experience in higher education.

“How colleges and universities admit classes matters to me,” he said. “[The question of race-conscious admissions] speaks to something I care a lot about.”

He explained that he prefers the term “race-conscious admissions” over “affirmative action” because “affirmative action” implies a handout. 

Iuliano first focused on the legal precedent on the matter, spending significant time delving into the discussion of Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), and the concurring opinion that who an institution wants to admit is an independent decision of the institution. 

Iuliano said institutions have certain rights that set them apart from society because “we need space to be effective critics [of society].” These rights include determining who may teach, what may be taught, how the subjects are taught and who may be admitted. 

He then moved on to discussion of Bakke v. Univ. of California, Davis, a case that arose out of Allan Bakke’s repeated denied admission to the medical school at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis). Bakke perceived this to be because of the racial quota system UC Davis was using at the time. This quota meant that there were two pools of applicants: applicants from the first pool of racially diverse candidates were pulled from until they reached their racial quotas and applicants from the second pool were then left to fill in the rest. Bakke, a white student, perceived this as discrimination on the basis of race because he was not admitted. 

Iuliano said the question then became, “Can we give certain special privileges to groups that have been historically discriminated against?”

The Supreme Court answered in Bakke v. Univ. of California, Davis that no, “benign discrimination” was not a acceptable reason to allow racial quotas in the university admission process. 

Iuliano explained that the Bakke decision didn’t end race-conscious admissions, but instead affirmed them in a different way, supporting the Harvard College admission plans over racial quotas. 

The Harvard College plan is what the Supreme Court will be deciding on this fall. 

The Bakke decision was affirmed again in Fisher v. University of Texas. Abigail Fisher and Edward Blum brought this case to the Court. Fisher, Blum, and Fisher’s father now head the organization Students for Fair Admission that has brought forth the cases against University of North Carolina and Harvard. 

While both Fishers and Blum are white, they claimed Harvard’s race-conscious admission process discriminated against Asian-Americans. They published advertisements on the Internet that said “Were you denied admission to Harvard? It may be because you’re the wrong race?” with a photo of a female Asian student. 

Despite Harvard’s high endowment, Iuliano said he believes Students for Fair Admission are targeting Harvard in their case because it was the “gold standard” of the previous case. If they can topple the Harvard College Plan, the whole structure for race-conscious admissions will fall, he said. 

Iuliano made his case for race-conscious admissions, referring to the Khurana Report that explains why student body diversity mattered to Harvard. 

He called it a conflict of collective versus individual interests, focusing on the collective interest of a university to create a diverse student body that can bring multiple life experiences to the table. 

He said that a Harvard statistician found no evidence of discrimination against Asian-American students. 

He expressed concern over the current makeup of the Supreme Court when faced with this information.

“The Court may not accept these factual findings,” he said. 

If race-neutral alternatives were used, Iuliano said, there would be a 33 percent decline in diversity, leading to a decline in academic quality. He said Students for Fair Admission was okay with that. 

“We are a better institution by virtue of the diversity we have created,” Iuliano said. 

He said he prefers a diverse student body because it keeps students from forming echo chambers of same experiences.

“We want to make you think about your assumptions,” he said. “We want to introduce you to people who life experiences [are] different than yours.” 

He said he was worried about the threat of colleges becoming more homogenous than they are today. 

In the time left for student questions, one student expressed concerns over Harvard’s admissions team discriminating against Asian students in their conversations after interviews, adding that these students were docked points on “personality” despite having the highest scores, the student said. 

While Iuliano said these interview conversations didn’t represent what Harvard was actually doing in their admissions process, he called the docking of points for personality a “fair point.”

Another audience member said there was a conflation of race with culture, and advocated for seeking students of different economic and religious backgrounds instead. 

Iuliano agreed that colleges should seek various types of diversity, but said, “[Students of different races] are confronting the world differently by virtue of their race.”

When a student asked whether Iuliano thought the Court would lay out a guideline for handling race in admissions or whether the Court would make a vague decision, Iuliano said he believed it would be a simple decision.

“My worry is that the Court is going to do something very simple,” he said. “‘You cannot consider race. Period.’…Not much more explaining needs to be done at that point.”

He said this will open the Court up to later determine whether practices universities claim are race-neutral, like looking at zip codes, actually are. 

Iuliano ended by saying, “You guys should not adopt my point of view. You should think for yourselves…Be informed.”

Though he made clear that he was not optimistic about the Court’s potential decision.

“A bad decision here sets us back and does not move us forward,” he said.

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Author: Katie Oglesby

Katie Oglesby ‘23 serves as the Editor-in-Chief for the Gettysburgian. She has previously served as Magazine Editor, News Editor, Assistant News Editor, and Staff Writer. She is an English with a writing concentration and political science major, hailing from San Diego, California, but now living in rural North Carolina. On campus, Katie works at the CUB information desk, is an Eisenhower Institute Fielding Fellow, and serves as secretary for the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. She spent a semester abroad in Bath, England studying British literature and politics, and spent this past summer interning with the Winston-Salem Journal in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She can usually be found perusing books in the Musselman Library browsing room.

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