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Health groups denounce Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in college admissions

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Medical schools had hoped the court would allow the consideration of race in admission decisions, but the conservative justices found it unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court's conservative majority ruled that's its unconstitutional for colleges to consider race in admissions. (Image credit: ©Ryan Tishken - stock.adobe.com)

The Supreme Court's conservative majority ruled that's its unconstitutional for colleges to consider race in admissions. (Image credit: ©Ryan Tishken - stock.adobe.com)

The Supreme Court delivered the ruling Thursday that many colleges, universities and medical schools had been dreading.

With a 6-3 ruling reflecting the court’s conservative majority, the justices said it’s unconstitutional for colleges to consider race as a factor in admissions. The justices heard two cases challenging the use of race in admissions at the University of North Carolina and Harvard College.

Colleges and universities, including medical colleges, had urged the court to allow institutions to weigh race as one factor in admissions as they strive to improve diversity.

The Association of American Medical Colleges and more than 40 other health associations filed an amicus brief to the court making the case to allow race to be a consideration in admissions.

Healthcare organizations denounced the high court’s ruling and said it could undermine decades of work in improving diversity in colleges, universities and medical schools. They also said it’s especially critical to improve diversity in medical schools in order to add much-needed diversity to the nation’s physician workforce.

The ruling could hamper medical schools’ efforts to improve their diversity, said Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, president of the  American Medical Association.

“This ruling restricts medical schools from considering race and ethnicity among the multiple factors in admissions policies and will translate into a less diverse physician workforce,” Ehrenfeld said in a statement. “Diversity is vital to health care, and this court ruling deals a serious blow to our goal of increasing medical career opportunities for historically marginalized and minoritized people.”

“While our country grows more diverse, historically marginalized communities have been left behind on nearly every health indicator,” Ehrenfeld added. “A physician workforce that reflects the diversity of the nation is key to eliminating racial inequities.”

Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said in a statement that he’s “incredibly disappointed” with the ruling.

“Without affirmative action, we risk turning the clock back on years of progress that have led to improved outcomes and a more diverse public health and health care workforce,” Benjamin said in the statement.

“Affirmative action policies and programs have directly resulted in the diversification of the public health and health care workforce, with more practitioners of color working directly in communities that suffer some of the worst health disparities and outcomes,” he said. “With a more diverse public health and health care workforce, we can address and redress years of systemic racism that has sustained poorer health outcomes for our communities of color.”

Medical schools have been making progress in improving their diversity in recent years, although most concede there’s plenty of work to do.

Women account for more than half of all medical students, and medical schools are attracting more Black, Asian and Hispanic students, the AAMC says.

At the same time, the physician workforce doesn’t reflect the diversity of the nation at large. Nearly two out of three doctors (63.9%) are white, while 6.9% of doctors identified as Hispanic (regardless of race), and 5.7% identified as Black or African American, according to the AAMC’s 2022 Physicians Specialty Data Report.

Harvard University, which was involved in one of the cases that led to the high court’s ruling, issued a statement indicating that the institution would comply with the court’s ruling but pledged to continue to pursue individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

“For almost a decade, Harvard has vigorously defended an admissions system that, as two federal courts ruled, fully complied with longstanding precedent,” Harvard’s leaders said in a statement. “In the weeks and months ahead, drawing on the talent and expertise of our Harvard community, we will determine how to preserve, consistent with the Court’s new precedent, our essential values.”

Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, said in a message to the campus community that he was “deeply troubled” by the ruling but committed to improving the institution’s diversity.

“The Court’s decisions may signal a new legal interpretation, but Yale’s core values will not change,” Salovey wrote. “Today, I emphatically reaffirm that Yale is fully committed to creating an inclusive, diverse, and excellent educational environment; to welcoming students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds; and to ensuring that our university is home to a diverse range of ideas, expertise, and experiences.”

The University of Michigan said it was “deeply disheartened by the court’s ruling,” but said it would continue to strive toward creating a more diverse community.

“We still wholeheartedly believe our dedication to academic excellence for the public good is inseparable from our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” the university said in its statement.

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