WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona suggested legacy and donor admissions preferences contradict the values of higher education institutions in a speech on Wednesday at the National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.
The summit came just one day after the Education Department launched a probe into whether Harvard’s use of donor and legacy preferences in its undergraduate admissions practices violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Do admission practices that benefit the wealthy and well-connected reflect your values?” Cardona asked a crowd of higher education leaders and Biden administration officials.
“I have nothing against the legacy student who did really well at an elite private school,” he said. “But I am in awe of the straight-A student from a Title I school who spent hours on a bus every week to take an AP class that wasn’t offered at her school and still found time to contribute to her community, all while having to take care of siblings at home.”
The Education Department convened a group of higher education leaders and senior Biden administration officials at its headquarters on Wednesday to discuss how to maintain equity and diversity in colleges and universities. The summit was announced hours after the Supreme Court effectively struck down affirmative action in higher education in a ruling late last month.
Cardona said in his speech that the Court’s ruling on affirmative action “feels like a new low point.”
“Our colleges have lost the most effective tool they’ve ever had for building diverse campus communities,” Cardona added. “Many Black and brown students have been left wondering if they should even bother setting their goals that high, at a time when we need them most.”
At the event, Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, previewed future challenges for higher education.
“We have already received new complaints challenging university admissions practices following the decision and we stand ready as always to fulfill the promise of Title VI and to ensure that all students have equal access to educational opportunities, including in higher education,” she said, alluding to recent efforts to end legacy and donor preferences at Harvard and other private universities.
Kristen Clarke ’97, the Department of Justice’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, urged colleges to scrutinize all their admissions practices with respect to inequality.
“This may be the time to confirm that all admissions preferences and policies directly relate to an applicant’s individual merit or potential and ensure that existing metrics or criteria do not increase inequality or disparities,” Clarke said.
Clarke noted that “one lawful path” of achieving diversity could involve institutions considering applicants’ experiences of race, quoting the Court’s majority opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts ’76.
“Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise,” Roberts wrote in the opinion. “But, despite the dissent’s assertion to the contrary, universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today.”
Clarke and Lhamon also confirmed the Department of Education will release guidance for colleges in August on how to lawfully comply with the Court’s ruling.
Pam Eddinger, who serves as president of Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts, took aim at elite universities and called on them to increase diversity by accepting more transfer students from community colleges.
“I’m surprised, really, at all the hand-wringing that goes on at our selective colleges and our four-year universities,” she said. “We know where your students are, who are students of color — they’re at my place.”
While Harvard President Claudine Gay and other senior University officials did not attend the summit, Harvard’s student body co-presidents decided to show up.
Harvard Undergraduate Association Co-Presidents John S. Cooke ’25 and Shikoh Misu Hirabayashi ’24 were invited to participate in a panel discussion on college recruitment.
Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the summit.
University President Claudine Gay, who did not attend the summit, has not spoken publicly about the Supreme Court’s decision since releasing a video message hours after the ruling on June 29. Gay said in the video that the University would dedicate the coming weeks to “working to understand the decision and its implications for our policies.”
In an interview following the event, Cooke said he wants Harvard to “become more involved in the wider community,” particularly in its recruitment strategies.
“That means recruiting, that means just being visible from throughout the entire admissions process to make sure that we’re attracting the best candidates for the Class of 2028 and beyond,” he said.
Cooke also expressed support for the Education Department’s decision to open an investigation into Harvard’s use of donor and legacy preferences in admissions.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Harvard themselves rectifies their practices of historically looking into more of a legacy focus to a focus on new backgrounds, new experiences, and a more diverse class for the next couple of years,” he added.
Brown University President Christina H. Paxson, currently the longest-serving Ivy League president, said her university had been examining how California colleges reacted after the state banned race-based affirmative action in 1996.
“We are going to follow the law,” Paxson said. “Some people think when you say you’re committed to diversity, it means you intend to skirt the law. That’s absolutely not true.”
“But we are going to think very creatively about how to expand access and opportunity at Brown,” she added.
Lhamon warned higher education officials about outside groups seeking to promote their own interpretation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the legality of race-based admissions practices, alluding to a letter anti-affirmative action activist Edward J. Blum sent 150 schools listing four demands for compliance.
“I have heard about groups who are not the Department of Education or the Department of Justice sending schools notifications about what they say the law is and what they want you to do,” Lhamon said.
“I offer you this: You will know when you hear from us,” she added.