Military academies could face challenge over race in admissions

After being exempted from Supreme Court ruling on Harvard and UNC, training grounds for Pentagon officers face their own legal threat

七月 27, 2023
Bucharest, Romania - December 1, 2018 US marines take part at the Romania's National Day military parade, in Bucharest.
Source: iStock

The political activist behind the US Supreme Court decision that ended affirmative action in college admissions is weighing a similar challenge involving the US military academies.

Last month the nation’s top court ended decades of its own precedent in ruling that both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina could not allow any racial preferences in deciding which students to admit.

But the court’s politically conservative majority allowed an exception for the nation’s four military academies, declaring that they have “potentially distinct interests” that would require a separate analysis from the rest of higher education.

That exception has drawn growing attention in the weeks since, with some congressional Republicans advocating legislation to clearly ban race-based considerations at the military academies, and advocates of admissions equity suggesting that the glaring exception called into question the authenticity and durability of the court’s position.

The cases against Harvard and UNC were organised by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, whose president, Edward Blum, told Times Higher Education that he expected to announce a decision shortly on the possibility of legal action against the military academies.

The academies have not been clear about exactly how they use racial preferences in their admissions processes, although Mr Blum said that is likely to change soon. “I don’t want to comment until the academies make a public statement about their policies going forward,” he said of the possibility of legal action over the matter. “I can’t imagine they will remain silent on this issue much longer.”

The four main academies – run by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard – function as institutions of higher education that also train their students to become commissioned officers of the US military. Admission is highly competitive, with acceptance rates below 20 per cent.

The academies do show attention to racial balance – the Army’s renowned academy at West Point, in New York, accepts about 1,300 cadets each year, with the black share hovering around the 13 per cent average of the overall US population. Yet only about 9 per cent of US military officers are black, less than half the figure for the overall US armed forces, and the academies have regularly declined to describe their approach to racial considerations in admissions.

The Supreme Court said it acted against the traditional universities because their racial preferences violate the US Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under law, but then gave no reason why the military should be exempt.

A spokesman for the Naval Academy said that its admissions process uses “a holistic approach that includes many different factors and considerations,” adding: “Historically, race has been one of many non-determinative factors.”

A Pentagon official, meanwhile, told Times Higher Education that the Department of Defense “is evaluating the implications of the court’s decision”.

“We rely on a pipeline of highly qualified American patriots from all walks of life and all backgrounds, which is crucial for our national security,” the official said.

A Democratic lawmaker, Representative Jason Crow of Colorado, a former US Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, condemned the Supreme Court for permitting official consideration of race only when it comes to letting minority applicants “fight and die for our country”. But several Republicans in the House and Senate offered language for inclusion in the Pentagon’s annual budget bill that would halt any race-based considerations in admission to the military academies.

The Pentagon has not been transparent about its use of race in admissions to the academies, and is unlikely to change that approach voluntarily, said Claude McQuarrie, a West Point graduate and president of Veterans for Fairness and Merit, a group that opposes the use of racial considerations.

The academies could announce a retreat from the practice, but such a pledge would have little value on its own, given the Pentagon’s stated belief in the value of racial balancing, Mr McQuarrie said. “It would be naive to think that an announcement that they will no longer consider race in admissions could be trustworthy,” he said.



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