Three men in suits sitting on a stage with an Amherst College banner hanging behind them.

Moderator Pawan Dhingra, associate provost and associate dean of the faculty (left); Ryan Park ’05, solicitor general of the state of North Carolina (center); and Matt McGann, dean of admission and financial aid (right).

In 1992, about one quarter of Amherst students self-identified as students of color. Thirty years later, that number has doubled.

One major reason for the increase? Members of the College’s admission team were able to consider race as a factor in their whole-person review of each application.

But what would happen if the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) declared that practice illegal? What would Amherst do to maintain such remarkable diversity?

This scenario is of course a real possibility, given that SCOTUS is currently deliberating on the constitutionality of what is called race-conscious admissions, and is expected to issue a decision about it in the spring. Without the Court’s decision in hand, said Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Matt McGann, it’s impossible to speculate on how he and his team will continue to recruit such diverse classes of students. One thing is for certain, though. “We’re going to do everything within the bounds of the law to continue to enroll classes that live up to Amherst’s mission and values.”

McGann articulated this commitment during a conversation on March 2 titled “The Future of Affirmative Action: Race-Conscious Admissions and the Supreme Court.” The event featured Ryan Park ’05, solicitor general of the state of North Carolina, who argued in favor of a holistic admissions process in Students for Fair Admissions v. the University of Carolina before the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 31. Moderated by Pawan Dhingra, associate provost and associate dean of the faculty and the Aliki Perroti and Seth Frank ’55 Professor of U.S. Immigration Studies, it attracted a rapt and somber crowd that filled the first floor of Johnson Chapel.

During the conversation, Park offered his legal perspective on race-conscious admissions and arguments made by his opposing counsel. One of those views was that the practice creates classifications under which certain race groups benefit over others, and this would be a clear violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. (That legislation, which was drafted after the Civil War, granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people, and guaranteed equal civil and legal rights to Black citizens, among other things.) 

“The challengers to race-conscious admissions policies [have argued that] any consideration of race for any purpose is unconstitutional,” said Park. “But if you study the history of the Equal Protection Clause, that’s not at all what the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment tried to do.… [They] passed a whole host of race-conscious measures designed to ameliorate the condition of the formerly enslaved people and also bring people together.”

He also shared an example he didn’t use in his argument but had wanted to: research on racially diverse juries that shows they reach more accurate decisions, and that they test, probe and recite the evidence more thoroughly. “When people are exposed to differences, it breaks down assumptions,” Park maintained. “They are forced to grapple with a lot of the understandings that they might have ingrained in them, bring them out into the open and have them be tested by others who have a different set of experiences.”

Those same kinds of exchanges happen every day at Amherst in classes, labs, residence halls and playing fields, and the wide range of backgrounds and perspectives represented make such conversations that much richer, said McGann. Adding that students are “more than just a GPA,” he asked, “How can we have a process that allows students to bring their whole selves to Amherst except for [their race and ethnic] identity?”

In addition to discussing and demystifying the case, the conversation enabled President Michael A. Elliott and Chair of the Board of Trustees Andrew Nussbaum, himself an attorney who clerked for late Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, to unequivocally reiterate the College’s belief in the value of the diversity, given its direct and visible impact on the Amherst community. 

It also allowed Elliott to issue an important reminder to the audience. Paraphrasing the College’s mission statement, he noted that Amherst “educates students of exceptional potential from all backgrounds. That means if you are a student sitting here tonight, you are essential to our mission.”