Harvard Kennedy School faculty members brought to bear their combined expertise and experience in history, law, higher education, and public leadership in a conversation on July 21 on issues of race in university admissions. The conversation took place against the backdrop of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month against race-conscious admissions.

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf cited Harvard University President Claudine Gay’s video message about the ruling at the start of the conversation. Gay told the community that Harvard “will determine how to preserve, consistent with the court’s new precedent, our essential values.” Elmendorf told the audience: “Success in our mission of improving public policy and public leadership depends on our recruiting outstanding students and giving them an opportunity to learn with and from other outstanding students with a wide range of experiences and perspectives. We will keep working toward that goal. And of course, we will do so in ways that are consistent with the court’s rules. This challenge is a collective challenge for the Kennedy School community.”

Sarah Wald, adjunct lecturer in public policy, moderated the wide-ranging conversation, which featured faculty members Deval Patrick, professor of the practice of public leadership; Cornell William Brooks, Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Ford Foundation Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy; and Christopher Norio Avery, Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy.

Read lightly edited excerpts from the conversation below.


On the meaning and history of affirmative action

Deval Patrick:

Deval Patrick“I have found that most people jump to their views on affirmative action without being clear about just what it is we are talking about and not talking about. Affirmative action is about taking account of race and the current impact of a history of American racism alongside other relevant factors in making choices among qualified candidates. That's what Harvard and the University of North Carolina did. And what was challenged in court. Affirmative action is not about numeric quotas.”

Cornell William Brooks:

“It is a means of using diversity to strengthen meritocracy. This has worked its way into not only our colleges and universities with respect to admissions, but also our workplaces, also our government. It has a legal history, a political history, a cultural and normative history that has tremendous impact on our democracy.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad:

Khalil Gibran Muhammad“It is under President Nixon that we begin to see federal action on affirmative action, related to government contracts.… Across all employment sectors, there was systemic discrimination, and this was most acute in construction work, where you have huge populations of Black residents of cities who can’t work on public contracted jobs. It’s also the case that the unions had long used discriminatory tactics to keep Black workers out, and those unions had preferred access to work. This is important for the context of affirmative action because its early history is arguably bipartisan. Its early history is also related to the employment sector rather than higher education.”

Christopher Norio Avery:

“It’s very hard to identify exactly what one means by affirmative action, and I don’t think this Supreme Court decision necessarily takes that on. The decision, ultimately, is process oriented.… This underscores a broader point, which is that other countries have national exams.… We don’t have any system like that here in the United States.… We leave it up to universities to determine their admissions and effectively to identify the applicants who can benefit the most from the opportunity and who contribute to society the most when they graduate.”

Harvard University President Claudine Gay.

“We will determine how to preserve, consistent with the court's new precedent, our essential values.”

Harvard University President Claudine Gay

On common arguments against affirmative action


“The most basic argument is that it is unfair, that people understand opportunity as a zero-sum problem: If people are getting “special treatment,” then someone else is being discriminated against.… The argument of special treatment in favor of Black people occurs at the earliest possible moment at the end of slavery. President Andrew Johnson himself made the argument that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 extended special treatment to Black people against the interests of white people. And there is not a single decade in American history where there isn’t some plaintiff somewhere in the United States making an argument against so-called special treatment for Black people. There has been no long-standing effort of acknowledging, in a sustained way, the 400 years of systemic discrimination and its many different guises.”


On the stigma and stereotypes associated with affirmative action


“[On Justice Thomas’s personal story:] Justice Clarence Thomas went to Yale. After he finishes law school, he can’t get a job. He blames affirmative action for the stigma.... Thomas's story among Black conservatives of the stigma of affirmative action as a shadow that overhangs personal success has been an ongoing story for the past 50 years.”


Cornell William Brooks“If Justice Clarence Thomas is responding to stereotyping in the legal field—that somehow Black candidates are “lesser than” because they’re beneficiaries of affirmative action—how is that different and how can it be distinguished from the stereotyping that goes on in every field? We are literally citing the response—the remedy—as the cause, and this is disingenuous, tautological circular reasoning. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson does a great job pointing this out.”

On the value of diversity in higher education and society


“It is not only beneficial with respect to students learning but also to professors teaching. I have had the experience of teaching mass incarceration, and in the midst of a discussion, a student raises a hand, and he is the only Black man in the room in a discussion of policing and mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects Black men. This was a moment in the classroom where, absent his voice, we would be having a discussion about a problem and people with no representation whatsoever.”


Christopher Norio Avery“I think we’re on the verge of seeing a number of studies of programs to promote diversity in elementary schools, studies that show effects that we can track long term.... I think there’s going to be a concerted effort by some universities to deliver the message that we’ve already been hearing from the Harvard administration and from the Kennedy School: that we are not going to allow this decision to undermine our essential values, including the value of diversity, and that access to education is a fundamental part of a democracy.”


“There is some value in considering the public goods in the context of the larger questions that we as a society are trying to grapple with. I think that there are two public goods at issue here. One is opportunity, and whether that is going to be made available to everyone, and the other is an old-fashioned term you don’t often hear today, and that's integration.… How do we design solutions that serve our public goods?”


“[On how, given the small numbers of students in private institutions, public institutions can respond:] Legitimacy is at stake here. My best guess is that state policymakers—not in every state, but hopefully in many—will recommit themselves to investing in our public schools, colleges, and universities.… If I’m a policymaker working under these constraints, my response would be to build up the capacity and infrastructure of public education in my state.”


Also see: HKS Professor of Practice Deval Patrick reflects on the historical context of the 14th Amendment

President Claudine Gay photo by Stephanie Mitchell; headshots by Martha Stewart and Kayana Szymczak

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