Opinion | What Ginsburg’s death could mean for higher education

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Graphic courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Siby Suriyan, Contributing Columnist

On Sept. 18, former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87. With the death of one of the most liberal justices on the court, U.S. President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will consolidate a conservative 6-3 majority, dramatically changing American life and even higher education.

The most obvious change will be the repeal of affirmative action in the college admission process. Ginsburg was a strong proponent of affirmative action. In Fisher v. University of Texas, she upheld affirmative action in a narrow 4-3 decision, writing that universities should place a larger emphasis on race in the admissions process to counteract historical discrimination done to people of color.

The next affirmative action case the court will likely hear is Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Jr. and John Roberts, Jr. will knock down affirmative action, given their dissent in Fisher. Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan will most likely uphold it, as they did in Fisher. That leaves Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Trump’s new nominee, all three of whom do not have a clear ruling on an affirmative action case. Before Ginsburg died, the justices that supported affirmative action only needed one more member to have a majority. But now each side needs two justices to join them. It is safe to say that at least two of the three will join the conservative wing, as Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and the new nominee would all have been appointed by Trump. 

The end of affirmative action will result in a less diverse student population, increasing the number of Asian and white students, and decreasing the number of Black and Hispanic students at our universities. This will hinder upward economic mobility for students of color and exacerbate the racial wealth and income gap. Furthermore, a more cultural and racially homogenous college setting will prove to be a less exciting, less stimulating college experience. 

Another issue that could affect higher education is speech codes, specifically anti-discrimination regulations. 

Across college campuses, free-speech groups are suing universities for anti-discrimination speech policies. The most recent case was Speech First v. Fenves, where Speech First, a First Amendment activist organization, sued University of Texas at Austin’s “broad” and “vague” speech policies that protect marginalized groups. Although a federal court threw out the suit, if a free-speech case made it to the Supreme Court, the Court is more likely to rule against the anti-discrimination group now that Ginsburg is gone. While Ginsburg did not rule on college anti-discrimination speech policies, she was an activist for minority rights and equality. Therefore, she was more likely to vote in favor of anti-discriminatory policies than Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, Roberts or the new nominee. 

A curb on anti-discrimination regulations could result in a hostile college setting for marginalized students, more dangerous guest speakers and the elimination of campus safe zones. 

Ginsburg was an icon for the civil rights movement. With her death, the Supreme Court leans in a more originalist interpretation of the Constitution, which may not always benefit marginalized people. While Washington D.C. is 800 miles away from Tuscaloosa, its presence will always be felt here, impacting us and our surroundings every day, for better or for worse.