The future of higher education is workers and students, not a racist court.
Last week a politically-manufactured right-wing majority on the US Supreme Court issued opinions opposing student debt cancellation and ending the use of race in college and university admissions policies. Affirmative Action policies in higher education were hard won by communities too long excluded from an essential human right: lifelong access to education. A diversified admissions process was the first step toward the realization of this right.
While we have seen progress in the fight to make our schools more representative of our people, enrollment of Black and Brown students, students with disabilities, low-wealth students has been too slow. These students, when enrolled, face more challenges to the completion of their degrees and they disproportionately leave our institutions with debilitating levels of debt. Today, in the wake of court opinions that reflect the needs of the powerful and not the people, we challenge all workers in higher education to imagine our next steps as directing us toward a more truly transformative vision for our schools.
In their dissenting opinion on the affirmative action case, Justice Sotomayor predicts that with this ruling the court “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.” We share Justice Sotomayor’s analysis of the structural inequality that forms the basis of the US’s racial caste system. The full text of this dissenting opinion lays out not only a deep history of injustice, but also the central role of education in fights for justice throughout our collective history.
We reject a future defined by “constitutional principles of colorblindness.” While the US Supreme Court has been endowed with undue power to determine the lives of the working class, we also know that the power of working people, organized, is much greater than that of a nine-member body. Social justice movements have always been led and won by working people. The same will be true of our fight for education for all. Today Virginia Colleges and universities face a right-wing assault from the same forces that engineered the reactionary takeover of our Supreme Court. Governor Youngkin’s second round of appointments to our governing Boards risks the same dangers we see today in states like Florida: an extremist and undemocratic supermajority.
Our universities cannot rely solely on admissions policies that produce minimum standards for representation in our student bodies. They cannot continue to raise the costs of education access each year, with no regard for its lifelong affect on our students. They cannot continue to gut our workforce and still assure our students and communities positive outcomes. They cannot continue to erode diverse and enriching curriculum in favor of boxed learning outcomes that favor the needs of the ownership class.
Instead students, faculty, and staff must fight for policies that move beyond minimum standards and toward universal access: free tuition, guaranteed admission for graduates of our local public schools, fair housing access for all students and workers, and elected governing boards representing our local communities. This vision — fully-realized across the state of Virginia — would ensure students in Richmond, Charlottesville, Williamsburg, Petersburg, Blacksburg, Radford, Fairfax, Fredericksburg, Farmville, Harrisonburg, and Norfolk, local access to a world-class education without debilitating debt.
Our path to justice is not complete when a single court can end the policies we rely on for narrowly-prescribed equity. In this context, all people who face the living history of America’s divide-and-conquer racial caste system are pitted against one another in search of a better life. We have seen that locally in the fights over specialty school admissions, and now we see its final form in the Supreme Court’s ruling on Harvard’s admissions policies. The project of deciding how to best divide resources that are unjustly limited must end. The future of higher education in the US is education for all.