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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at the National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you. I am delighted to be here with you today.

To my colleagues at the Department of Education, thank you for bringing this group together at this important moment, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on the consideration of an applicant’s race in admissions decisions. We stand with our colleagues at the Department of Education to affirm our commitment to diversity and racial equality, following the Supreme Court’s recent decision.

Let’s be frank. The Supreme Court’s ruling is a deep disappointment. The Court dismissed the universities’ assessment of the educational benefits – or even the relevance – of racial diversity. As Justice Jackson’s dissent powerfully recognized:

“Our country has never been colorblind. Given the lengthy history of state-sponsored race-based preferences in America, to say that anyone is now victimized if a college considers whether that legacy of discrimination has unequally advantaged its applicants fails to acknowledge the well-documented ‘intergenerational transmission of inequality’ that still plagues our citizenry.”

While this is a difficult moment, we are not strangers to challenging times. All of us gathered together today have worked and will continue to work to promote equal educational opportunities for all students. And difficult or not, we will continue to work to expand opportunity and achieve diversity on college campuses and in society. Your presence here today reflects your commitment to equal opportunity in higher education. We thank you for being here, and we thank you for what you do.

I want you to know that we were prepared for this decision and, as my colleagues at the Department of Education have shared, we are actively working on a resource for colleges and universities addressing lawful admissions practices, in light of the decision. As was mentioned, that document will become public next month. In the coming months, we will continue to meet the moment with fortitude and resourcefulness.

Colleges and universities can and should continue to ensure that their doors are open to students of color. Admissions offices should continue to accept applicants who possess the characteristics and attributes necessary to succeed and contribute on college campuses, and in the world; values like grit and perseverance, curiosity and academic and personal excellence. The Supreme Court recognized what we know to be true, that race can be relevant to a person’s life or lived experience, and may be relevant to one’s motivations, or one’s academic interests, or one’s goals. As was mentioned, the Court expressly stated that “nothing in [its] opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.”

To guide us, the Court stated that a university could consider “a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal” when it is “tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university.” For instance, maybe that would be a university considering an essay from a Black student who discussed her interest in becoming a civil rights attorney after going on a field trip to a courthouse to hear arguments in a landmark school desegregation case. Or maybe it would be crediting an applicant explaining that their interest in history stems from learning to cook ackee and saltfish from their mother and how that experience encouraged the applicant to learn more about their family history and Jamaica’s cultural influences in the world. Both of those examples, which come from my own personal experience with how my own heritage and culture shaped my development and world view, only serve to underscore that students of color do not have to ignore their lived experiences, and neither do colleges and universities when considering their applications. How an applicant’s racial identity – as well as other aspects of their social identity – impact their development, goals or educational interests are still important considerations in university admissions.

The bottom line is that institutions of higher education remain free to consider any characteristic of a student that bears on the institution’s admission decision, such as courage or determination, even if the student’s application tied that characteristic to his or her lived experience with race.

As colleges and universities take stock of their admissions programs in light of the Court’s decision, this is also an opportunity to examine admissions preferences and policies broadly. This may be the time to confirm that all admissions preferences and policies directly relate to an applicant’s individual merit or potential, and ensure that existing metrics or criteria do not increase inequality or disparities. As we know, for much of our nation’s history, people of color were excluded from most institutions of higher education, and we applaud the steps that colleges and universities have taken to open their doors and seek out qualified and capable applicants of all races.

At the Justice Department, we remain firmly committed to advancing opportunity and to ensuring that students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds are not denied the opportunity to learn together and participate in the robust exchange of ideas and experiences that is the keystone of college and university life.

Although this decision has changed the landscape for admissions in higher education institutions, it should not be used as an excuse to turn away from diversity. Our nation is stronger when our colleges and universities reflect the vast and rich diversity of our people. We remain committed to ensuring equitable opportunities for all students in our nation’s higher education institutions because of the proven benefits of diversity in our communities, our military and our nation.

I want you to be confident that the Departments of Justice and Education will continue working to ensure that students have equitable access to education, from K-12 institutions, all the way to our institutions of higher education. This decision does not stop our charge and it does not relieve educational institutions of their duty to ensure that their admissions practices do not create barriers for students based on any protected characteristics, including race.

The Justice Department, along with the Department of Education, will continue working hard to promote those goals and to achieve equal justice.

That is why we are all here today, and we hope we can continue these conversations in the months ahead.

Thank you.

Civil Rights
Updated July 26, 2023