When Affirmative Action was Overturned, Sewanee was Ready

Rebecca Cole


The Supreme Court decision overturning affirmative action in college admissions has impacted every U.S. university, but Sewanee leaders say the college was well prepared. 

Dr. Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, vice provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion, explained how the University had been following the court cases leading up to the June 29 decision and were prepared for it to be in favor of SFFA. While many universities were caught off guard, Sewanee was able to continue the recruitment and admissions processes it had implemented for years. “We have been very intentional over the past two years to look at diversity in the broadest sense,” said Dr. Anderson-Thompkins, “we spent a whole year preparing for the decision.”

In June, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Students for Fair Admissions Inc. in SFFA v Harvard and SSFA v University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This decision ends the ability of colleges and universities to consider race in deciding which qualified applicants should be admitted. Admissions offices are still allowed to consider how adversity has affected a student’s life in their discussion of their own race in essays or responses, but there may not be a box or specific essay in which students submit their race. 

 Sewanee’s  preparation included conversations with University general counsel and admissions leaders and thinking deeply about what might need to change.

Before the ruling, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Alan Ramirez said that a prospective student’s race did not determine their admission status, but “for us, race was part of the conversation when we were reviewing an application.” With the high court’s decision, race can no longer be “a key decision factor,” Dean Ramirez said. He added that race “can no longer come up in the conversation,” unless a student provides that information in their essay.

 “We have suppressed that data point in the application,” said Dean Ramirez. But no longer including that data point will not impact recruitment, he said. “We are making sure that we are still going to traditional feeder schools and serving more diverse populations.” 

Dean Ramirez said there are other tools with which the office can explore aspects of a student’s life related to adversity. These would include where the student is applying from, whether a student has access to the internet, and whether there are other indicators that a student faced adversity. Looking deeply at the student’s access to resources beyond “the free and reduced lunch data point,” will give admissions staff “ a broader perspective of a student’s diversity.” 

The goal is to understand each student’s needs as well as their potential. “For us, it’s not an admissions issue,” Dean Ramirez said. “We have students in our admitted student pool and it’s making sure that those diverse students are seeing their place here.” 

About 15% of the freshman class of 2027 are students of color and the percentage of international students has more than doubled in the past two years. The percentage of first-generation students in the class of 2027 is about 13%, which is also up from 2021, and pell-eligible students make up around 16% of the freshman class. 

Dean Ramirez said that one of the best pieces of advice that he heard about the court’s decision was from Art Coleman with the Education Counsel who said, “Let’s not give this case more legs than it already has.” Dean Ramirez said he wanted to focus on “what it is and not let it impact the areas of what it isn’t.” 

The Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is responsible for helping students to see their place at Sewanee beyond admission. Under DEI there are several units including the Office of Inclusive Excellence, which Dr. Anderson-Thompkins describes as the “student-facing arm of DEI.” Inclusive Excellence has core programs that focus on the intersection between identity and culture and host events that offer opportunities for students to celebrate those identities and cultures and for others to become exposed to those identities and cultures.

 “Those programs really allow students to become immersed in different cultures. But also for those who are a member of those cultures, they get to see people who are part of their own history and heritage and there’s an opportunity for them to even deepen their own knowledge about themselves and their culture.” 

“When students are looking at colleges,” said Dr. Anderson-Thompkins, “they are actually googling to see ‘well what is there going to be for me,’ and we are trying to answer that question.” She explained how the DEI office and the Office of Inclusive Excellence specifically are trying to provide for students a social network, a cultural aspect, and safe spaces where they feel a sense of connection and belonging. One of the projects that Rachel Fredericks, the director of Inclusive Excellence, has spearheaded is a residential living and learning program focused on intercultural exploration. On the third floor of Smith Hall, students from diverse backgrounds come together with the intention of learning about different cultures, and they have events and lectures they participate in throughout the year. 

The DEI office has created new leadership roles for students such as the DEI chairs within organizations around campus. “We are also helping to build leadership skills within our students so that they can affect change where they are as well within those organizations that they are part of.” The other aspect of DEI is policy and compliance, which Dr. Sylvia Gray leads as director of equity, equal opportunity, and Title IX. “A lot of our work over the last two years has been strengthening our non-discrimination policy.” 

“I think that when people hear about diversity initiatives, they think they are designed and aimed at a very small group of people, but diversity benefits everyone.” Dr. Anderson-Thompkins said Sewanee is trying to prepare people to be citizens and leaders in a global society, and diversity is critical to everyone. “Regardless of someone’s background or identity, there’s something that can be gained,” said Dr. Anderson-Thompkins, “having a diverse campus is one that benefits all of our students and allows us to prepare the brightest students to take on the greatest challenges that we face as a society.” 

The overturning of affirmative action, while a transformational ruling for many universities, was not as disruptive at Sewanee because of the work that these two offices have been doing over the past few years. However, many students in the aftermath of the ruling, especially underrepresented students, reported feeling that they were being turned against one another. 

“We don’t see students as simply this one dimensional representation of a race or a gender and I think that’s part of what the court has done, kind of pitting potentially African American and Asian students against each other,” Dr. Anderson-Thompkins said. “We had a lot of fears before the decision came out, but in some ways the court reaffirmed the importance of not having these limited views of individuals. The way we go about our work here in recruiting and retaining students really models this recognition and appreciation for the individual.”

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