Admissions reacts to Supreme Court affirmative action decision, updates application
Student Life sat down with Grace Chapin James, Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions, to unpack how the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule affirmative action in Students for Fair Admission Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College will impact future classes at Washington University.
Chancellor Andrew Martin declined two interview requests from Student Life about how the University will continue their “commitment to cultivating, welcoming, and supporting a diverse student body,” as Martin wrote in his statement to the community, June 29.
Julie Flory, Vice Chancellor for Communications and Marketing, said that Martin “would like to let Admissions do this interview.”
The Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) and the Taylor Family Center for Student Success also declined interviews. Both said that their roles at the University won’t be impacted by the ruling.
“The CDI is committed to supporting all of our students and I don’t expect anything to change in that regard based on the Supreme Court decision,” Mark Kamimura-Jiménez, Dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, wrote in an email.
The following Q&A with Chapin James has been edited for length and clarity.
Student Life: What was it like for you and your team this summer following the Supreme Court decision?
Grace Chapin James: We knew there was going to be a decision made and we’ve sort of been anticipating the direction of the decision.
And then when we got the decision, you have to take that step back, read what’s written in the decision, read the scope, and try to figure out what that means for you.
We’re sitting with the words and then we go into sort of action mode of, ‘alright, what needs to change? What did we plan for that we can put into action now? And what’s different than we might have anticipated from the decision that we need to adjust to?’
SL: And so then directly after [the decision] what did those conversations look like for you and your team?
GCJ: I think first and foremost, it was a matter of, you know, ‘we’re going to take some time, we’re gonna read it through.’ We have great legal counsel here at WashU. And it was important for me, and for members of our leadership team to engage with them and kind of get their opinion and judgment.
And then there’s also conversations among our staff as individuals. We have a pretty diverse staff and a lot of staff members of color who feel this decision in sometimes a different way then I might, in addition to their work with students, just as humans.
SL: Can you talk about any of this specific advice that [the legal counsel] gave you?
GCJ: We have to comply with the law. It’s essential that we do that. And so what we do with legal counsel is make sure that we have effective professional interpretation of things that are written into Supreme Court decisions that might be more ambiguous, or might need to be considered among our individual processes.
SL: Given that some states, like California, already have these laws in place, did you consult or look at any of their school systems to understand what you’re able to do and be in compliance with the laws?
GCJ: We’ve looked to those for results, for what we think is going to happen and for strategies and tactics that they recommend to [try] to ensure a diverse class.
We’re not a state university. And so some of those tactics don’t always make as much sense here as they might elsewhere. But we definitely have looked to states like Michigan, Texas, California, they’ve done this before, right? It’s helpful to look at those examples.
SL: Given the Chancellor’s statement that WashU is committed to diversity and continuing to have a diverse group of students — in all sorts of levels, but including racially — what has your office done to ensure that for the next year’s applicants?
GCJ: So the tools have changed, but the commitment has not. The key thing, we can no longer consider race as a factor, even as a limited factor among many, as it previously was in our admission decisions.
[We] have been doing work in the past and continue enhancing that work: reaching out to communities where students of color are well represented, trying to be financially accessible. Iwant to make it clear that I don’t think that that is the only solution to becoming a racially and ethnically diverse school, but it does help a lot to make sure that a lot of students can see themselves here.
My admissions team is folks who go out all over the country — and in fact all over the world — to visit high schools, engage with community based organizations, do presentations for free to talk about applying to college to students from a really wide range of backgrounds. We have continued to dive into using data to make sure that we’re going to communities where we’re likely to be talking to students who may not know about WashU yet.
I also think that a lot of our partners across campus are doing great work because it’s for us, it’s not just about admitting students and being like ‘thrive!’ but you know, making sure that there’s resources on campus like the Taylor Center, for example, that helped to make us both attractive to students, but also to make sure that students have sources of support and community while they’re here. Those things go hand in hand.
SL: If a student disclosed their race in a question, talking about ways that they’ve been impacted growing up, or the communities that they’re in, are you able to use any of that information?
GCJ: We do not have to or choose to redact information that relates to race outside of like pure demographic information and the application.
Students should absolutely feel free to represent the things that they do and the things that they’re passionate about. So if a student were to say for example, like that they are part of the Black Student Union or an Asian American affinity group at their high school, we can consider that as part of leadership and involvement. We wouldn’t be considering that as a proxy to assume that they are that race, right? That’s not permissible. But I’m never going to wipe out the fact that a student is involved in a community organization or a group that’s important to them.
SL: Can you tell me anything about how the specific application and application questions regarding the WashU application have changed for the class of 2028?
GCJ: As long as I’ve been here, we’ve asked a question on the application, a supplemental question about ‘what you’d like to study and why,’ and that remains on the application.
And then we’ve added an optional set of questions: “discuss a fresh perspective or an opinion you brought to a collaborative setting or project,” “describe a community you’re a part of and your place within it,” and “tell us how your life experiences have impacted the way you view or interact with your community.”
It’s important to me that a wide range of students might feel comfortable answering some of these questions. We do have students who might want to reflect on race or ethnicity as part of this question, but we also have a growing population of rural students, for example, who I hope will find themselves in this question.
SL: Have any of those questions specifically changed from the previous year?
GCJ: These were questions that did not exist on our application previously, so entirely new questions that we added for this year’s class with the understanding that lived experience is an important way for us to learn about students and narrative.
My hope is that students who want to have more space in their application to talk about their lives and to talk about their experiences, and also didn’t feel like their Common App personal statement was the space to do that — now have that space from us.
SL: Do you expect any racial differences in the class of 2028 versus 2027?
GCJ: I think that would be way too speculative for me to talk about. We’re really at the beginning of our admission process. I’m hopeful — we’ve had a solid and strong representation of underrepresented students of color in our class in the past and in our applicant pool. I hope that students will still see themselves coming to a school like WashU, and still want to apply.
SL: Do you have any knowledge or information about how the scholarship office will change — Ervin and Danforth and Rodriguez — given the new ruling?
GCJ: One thing I’d like to make clear is that the Ervin, Rodriguez, and Danforth scholarship programs have not been and are not race-exclusive and have not been for many, many years.
It’s been our understanding as a university since about 2004, 2005 that those scholar programs needed to be open to students from any racial or ethnic background.
Although historically, some of the programs have had a stronger pipeline of students seeing themselves in the program, just based on the history and the legacy of folks like, you know, John Ervin, and other kinds of things. We have welcomed students from a wide range of backgrounds into those programs, [and] like the admission process, it’s not permissible for race to be a factor in decision making for scholarships.
SL: Anything that I didn’t ask you or we didn’t talk about that you feel like is important to highlight on your end?
GCJ: Whenever I talk to a news organization, one of the things that I think is really important to emphasize, at least for me, is that we really do want students to feel comfortable sharing what’s important to them.
I really worry that the Supreme Court decision is going to make students feel discouraged or like they can’t share if they’re part of affinity groups or other kinds of things that either relate to a community that they’re part of, or that they just care about. I want to make it clear that is not the case. If students are involved in an activity or an organization, or they want to talk about something, they should feel free to do that.
I also just hope that students recognize that while it’s important for us to comply with the law, this is not a decision that’s been driven by universities. Chancellor Martin’s statement…reflects how we all feel. We want to continue having a diverse community and an inclusive community that supports students, and I would hope that students don’t individually choose to opt themselves out of that process thinking that colleges like WashU are not looking for them. We really are.