September 26, 2022
Since our nation's birth in 1776, we have made halting progress in pursuing "equality for all." From emancipation and adoption of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment in the late 1800s to the civil rights movement in the 1960s and Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action this millennia, our nation has openly and caustically struggled to reconcile its heterogeneity with its founding principle to "form a more perfect Union."
This struggle has coursed through the halls of academia where, since the late 1960s, affirmative action policies were born as many colleges had begun to consider race as one of many factors in admissions, amid the civil rights movement and urban uprisings that shook our nation.
In the decades after affirmative action was instituted, selective colleges saw dramatic increases in their numbers of Black, Latinx, and Native American students. America made historic progress, and the U.S. Supreme Court symbolically nodded in approval through rulings in 1978, 2003, and 2016 that allow race-conscious admissions within certain limits. Those rulings forbid racial quotas but acknowledge that schools have a compelling educational interest in seeking racial diversity among students.
But half a century of racial and academic progress in America is in jeopardy as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments this fall in two cases against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and possibly overturns longstanding precedent that would upend modern American life.
The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) emphatically supports affirmative action as a bedrock value that advances equity for all students as it improves the quality of higher and engineering education, the workforce, U.S. competitiveness, and our pluralistic society. Affirmative action fosters excellent and broadly accessible education empowering students and engineering professionals to create a better world. The ideal cultivates an inclusive community that engages all members and values the contributions of all stakeholders. Circumstances or actions that impede diversity, equity, and inclusion are inimical to good engineering practice.
Overturning affirmative action would have a chilling effect on diversity, academic progress, creativity, as well as technical and financial competitiveness in America. A federal court found that forbidding Harvard from considering race in its admissions program could "reduce African American representation at Harvard from 14% to 6% and Hispanic representation from 14% to 9%." The impact of such a ruling would cascade across college campuses where diversity would likely plunge at similar rates.
Without affirmative action, future generations of engineers, educators, scholars, judges, CEOs, presidents, inventors, entrepreneurs, and public leaders would likely be less Black and less Latinx. Widening academic and economic inequities would undermine our nation’s nearly 250-year-old democracy. This human-capital tragedy would hemorrhage people, families, and communities, and threaten higher education's role in fortifying our pluralistic society.
As the Supreme Court explained in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), "major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints."
ASEE's mission is to strengthen engineering education by fostering a welcoming environment for students of diverse genders and racial, economic, and geographic backgrounds. We value excellence, engagement, innovation, integrity, diversity, and inclusion. ASEE affirms its steadfast support for affirmative action and urges the Supreme Court to uphold the long-held precedent that serves our nation honorably and effectively.