At 10:15 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 30, Amherst’s Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Matthew McGann joined a long line in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. He knew that staying in line all night offered his best chance of snagging one of several dozen seats available to the public to observe the next day’s proceedings. On the docket were oral arguments for two cases brought by an organization called Students for Fair Admissions, one against the University of North Carolina, the other against Harvard. Both question the legality of “race-conscious” admissions in higher education.
Amherst–and McGann and the College’s president, Michael A. Elliott–had already taken a public stand in support of using race as one factor among many in a holistic admissions process this summer, when the College initiated and coordinated an amicus curiae brief arguing that a racially diverse student body is a “compelling interest” of liberal arts colleges. But the case is so important to McGann that he wanted to be there in person when the lawyers–including North Carolina Solicitor General Ryan Park ’05, who defended UNC’s practices–made their arguments.
Getting in, though, took even longer than McGann had expected. When he finally took his seat at 1:30 p.m. the next day, he had been standing for more than 15 hours, in 50-degree temperatures, to show his and Amherst’s support of race-conscious admissions.
Fifteen hours is a long time to spend in line. Did you bring a chair or sleeping bag?
I didn’t, only because I wanted to travel light–you’re not allowed to bring many things into the courtroom. There were people in line who had inflatable mattresses, yoga mats and suitcases. I mostly stood the whole time.
You were still in line during the morning hearing.
I missed getting in by a couple of seats. I was 53rd in line. Fortunately, though, 13 people left the room after the break [between cases] and I made it in.
Why did you decide to be there in person?
I thought it was important to represent and be present for the College, the admission profession and myself. It is not a time to be shy about values. A diverse student body is a core element of our community. Education is better when we bring together people with different backgrounds and different perspectives. Our holistic admission process, which has allowed us to consider all aspects of a student’s identity–race and ethnicity being two of many–is what has enabled us to bring together our incredible College community.
That’s your professional interest. Do you have a personal interest as well?
I am a first-gen student who grew up in a relatively small town and graduated with only about 70 others. Attending a diverse college [MIT] opened my eyes to the broader world and to what can happen when you make friends of many different backgrounds and perspectives. I learned firsthand not just the transformative power of a college education, but also education in a diverse community. It made me a better person, a better citizen. I want as many students as possible from across the country and around the world to have that same transformative experience.
Did you wear any Amherst garb in line or at the proceedings?
Of course! I had on three layers: a sport coat, my Amherst College Admission and Financial Aid jacket and a purple shirt underneath. I wasn’t shy about letting people know who I was representing.