In response to the Supreme Court’s June ruling on race-conscious admissions and the proliferation of state legislation prohibiting diversity initiatives, NAFSA hosted a Town Hall on international education, affirmative action, and diversity bans. Panelists included: 

  • Fanta Aw, NAFSA’s CEO and executive director
  • LaNitra Berger, associate professor of art history and director of African American studies at George Mason University and president and chair of NAFSA’s Board of Directors
  • Lily Lopez-McGree, executive director of Diversity Abroad
  • Thúy Thị Nguyễn, partner at the law firm, Garcia Hernández Sawhney

The timely discussion clarified what the Supreme Court ruling is and isn’t, highlighted the tools and resources international educators have in their toolbox, and examined how to constructively engage with the current moment while learning from the past and keeping an eye on the future.

Key takeaways:

  • Beware of repressive legalism—a chilling effect caused by the uncertainty, confusion, and debate over the meaning of the Supreme Court ruling. California’s Proposition 209 (the 1996 law that ended state affirmative action programs in education, public employment, and government contracting) demonstrated the dangers of overreacting to the letter of the law. Work with your general counsel office to get informed
  • Make a compelling argument. In its defense in the Supreme Court case, Harvard University and the University of North Carolina posited that race-conscious admissions practices benefit all students’ education—but the court ruled that their argument was not “sufficiently coherent.” International educators make the argument that diverse student populations, internationalizing the campus, sending students abroad, etc. has real value to students' success and is not just a 'nice to have.' International educators need to sharpen their argument and conduct more research on the value of a global education, as needed.
  • Think beyond race. How can we find new ways of closing the equity gap in student success that don't solely focus on race? Look at how removing the SAT requirement has expanded access to higher education. Promote dual enrollment; make connections to the K-12 pipeline in your area; celebrate first-generation students; and support low-income students’ basic needs (food pantries, affordable housing, etc.).
  • Use this disruption to be productive. Let’s be honest—the status quo wasn’t working for the majority of students, faculty, and staff anyway. International educators can use this opportunity to leave our comfort zones and evolve to better meet our mission of graduating students and preparing them for their careers.
  • Be an ally. Get to know your diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) office and connect with the faculty and administrators in other key areas to establish common ground, mutual understanding, and support. Move away from the binary thinking, silos, and zero-sum mentality that can be endemic to higher education. Instead, more toward cross-programming and collaboration to give students the education and experience they deserve.
  • Engage students. That’s why we’re all here. Students are forceful agitators for change. In fact, their voices drove the creation of DEI offices on many campuses. Students can speak more freely and powerfully, in ways that faculty and staff cannot.
  • Recognize patterns of revolution. Change is rarely linear, so we shouldn’t be disheartened by the latest setbacks. It may feel like one step forward, two steps back. But the next move may be three steps forward. We can’t afford to be deterred.
  • Vote. Exercise your right to vote and encourage your students to do the same. Acknowledge to them that our institutions are far from perfect—but the refusal to vote is a vote for the status quo.
  • Coalitions are vital to our success. Connections between international educators; diversity, equity and inclusion offices; and national advocacy leaders like ACLU and PEN America are essential. These partnerships will serve us well now and in dealing with future challenges.

Closing words by Fanta Aw: We have to do the work but we don’t have to do the work alone. This is not the time to despair—yet you can't give what you don’t have. Prioritize self-care. Lean on each other. Embrace a systems approach that utilizes tools for change at the individual, structural, and cultural levels. Let’s commit to uplifting success stories and sharing resources to do this work in the current legal and political climate. With challenges come new opportunities.