Advocates of historically Black colleges and universities were quick to respond when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of race as a legally permissible factor that colleges could consider when admitting students.
- “It is a sad day for diversity in America,” Clarence D. Armbrister, Johnson C. Smith University’s then-president, said in the written statement.
- “I stand with you deeply disappointed,” Morehouse University President David A. Thomas wrote in an open letter to the Morehouse community.
- At the United Negro College Fund, President and CEO Michael L. Lomax said the court’s ruling would “close the door to educational opportunity” for many students of color seeking enrollment at predominately white institutions.
But even as the dire predictions came, some HBCU advocates were also cautiously optimistic that the court’s ruling could have a silver lining for historically Black schools that, overall, have seen their enrollment numbers decline.
Armbrister, who has since retired, used the occasion to promote JCSU as an “excellent option for Black students seeking a college education in a nurturing environment…”
Thomas, the Morehouse president, called for more funding for his Atlanta campus and other HBCUs in light of the court’s ruling.
“The question we must answer,” he said, “is whether the philanthropists, foundations, and corporations that declared a commitment to address racial equity will invest at the highest levels to scale and resource HBCUs such as Morehouse in ways comparable to what is frequently done for predominantly White institutions.”
Lomax, at UNCF, said the court’s ruling would mean “more students will turn to HBCUs for their college educations.”
“America needs HBCUs now more than ever,” he said in an appeal for donations. “
But will the court’s controversial ruling actually help HBCUs in their recruitment of Black students and the funding needed to educate them?
Professor Robert Palmer, chair of educational leadership and policy studies at Howard University’s School of Education, has long considered that question. In 2010 he published a paper, The Perceived Elimination of Affirmative Action and the Strengthening of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, predicting not only the court-ordered demise of affirmative action in college admissions but also a corresponding “mass of Black students” who would turn to HBCUs for schooling.
He advised HBCUs, even back then, to “advocate for funding equity to better serve the plausible influx of students and to reaffirm the social contract from which they originated.”
Last week, days after the Supreme Court struck down the use of race in admissions at Harvard College and UNC Chapel Hill, I spoke with Palmer by phone about the landmark ruling.
As he stated in his 2010 paper, Palmer reiterated his belief that the demise of Affirmative Action will push more Black students to consider HBCUs. But he wasn’t celebrating that prospect.
Palmer called the court’s decision “terrible” and “gut-wrenching” and predicted that it would “perpetuate a system of segregation in higher education.”
“We know how critical diversity is, particularly in a college context, when you have students…white students or other students who for their first time will maybe come in contact with a minoritized person,” he said.
He also expressed concern that the court’s decision could “impact the recruitment of diverse faculty and other sectors of society that have used affirmative action.” And while some scholars have speculated that colleges will find back-door ways to recruit students of color, Palmer is less certain of that approach.
“I think colleges, or schools in general, will be leery,” he said. “They’ll be very cautious. I think they want a workaround, but there’s going to be so much scrutiny in light of this decision. And even a workaround, for example, will be scrutinized and may result in another court battle.”
In a May 26 interview, a full month before the Supreme Court’s ruling came down, Armbrister, the JCSU president, called himself “a great beneficiary” of affirmative action in higher education. He holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Michigan Law School.
Armbrister, who has since retired, said students “should have choices” when selecting a college or university. But, anticipating how the Supreme Court would eventually rule, he said he would not be saddened if the demise of affirmative action also resulted in an enrollment surge at “high-quality HBCUs.”
“We fight above our weight,” he said of the nation’s historically Black colleges. “We’re going to do well by those students if they choose to come.”