Today the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 45 years of precedent, ruling that, although colleges may consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise,” colleges may no longer consider race itself as a factor among many in holistic admission reviews.
We are especially concerned about the potentially far-reaching impacts. When California banned affirmative action in 1996, the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Berkeley experienced a nearly 50% decline in enrolling Black and Latinx students, compromising an inclusive learning environment for all students. In the decades following the ban, a broad range of strategies implemented by the University of California system has lessened the original gaps but the racial and ethnic diversity of their students has still not returned to the levels experienced prior to the ban on affirmative action.
Vassar took a strong stand in favor of Harvard and UNC’s admissions policies in this litigation. Last summer, together with 32 peer institutions—such as Amherst, Bowdoin, and Williams—Vassar filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court that explained the value of race as one consideration among many in the admissions process. The Court was unpersuaded by these arguments. The rule of law is of paramount importance to our democracy, and Vassar will fully abide by the Supreme Court’s decision while continuing efforts to enroll a diverse student body in keeping with our long-standing values.
Our mission statement leaves no doubt: Vassar strives to pursue a rich intellectual and cultural environment in which all members, including those from historically underrepresented and marginalized groups, are valued and empowered to thrive. We will not relent in the pursuit of that mission as interacting with diverse ideas, histories, and viewpoints improves the experience of all students. Our history is deeply rooted in expanding access, as Matthew Vassar on the eve of the Civil War in 1861, sought to change the era for women by establishing a liberal arts college designed to provide women with the same quality education afforded men. This access was extended originally only to white women, a history we continue to uncover and with which we continue to reckon. About 100 years later in 1969, Vassar expanded access to men, and became one of the first liberal arts colleges to offer Black Studies. In 2015, having implemented and sustained a need-blind admission policy, Vassar won the inaugural Jack Kent Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence award for colleges that enroll and support through graduation substantial numbers of low-income students from all backgrounds. Today, nearly two thirds of our students receive financial aid, and Vassar ranks near the top of selective liberal arts colleges in terms of high graduation rates for our lowest income students. Additionally, since 2010, the number of students of color at Vassar has increased 33% and the most recent class is the most racially and ethnically diverse to date.
Vassar’s commitment to racial and ethnic diversity is clear through a myriad of initiatives that strengthen our educational experience, which is guided by engaged pluralism, wherein we recognize ourselves as both members of specific groups and members of the larger Vassar community—at the same time. Engaged pluralism demands that different groups do not merely tolerate each other. They value and engage each other. They do not merely accept difference; they understand difference as a source of holism, a vital component of shared teaching and learning, and the bedrock for cultivating a trusting, authentic community at Vassar and in our future lives.
Our values are manifest in an array of programs housed in the Jeh Vincent Johnson ALANA Center, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices, the Office of International Services, the Grand Challenges Program, which is building a culture of inclusive excellence in the sciences, and the Office of Engaged Pluralism. In 2022, we completed a cluster hire of faculty whose area of teaching and research focused on race and racial equity. In the last year, we launched the Vassar Inclusive History Initiative prioritizing the study of the African American and Black experiences and the experiences of Native Americans at Vassar. Students, faculty, and administrators work together on the proactive Committee on Inclusion and Equity, which advises the President on enhancing policies to promote inclusion and equity in all aspects of the Vassar experience. From this history, we know that the work of removing systemic barriers to full participation by all students requires an ongoing, reflective, and steadfast commitment moving forward.
In closing, Vassar has faced challenges before, and we will not be daunted in our mission to bring together diverse communities of learning, while following the law. The quality of every student’s education and their future success depend on this mission.
Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604