Failure to Communicate Strategically on Affirmative Action Ruling Will Impact University Reputations

March 27, 2023

In the next few months, the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling overturning or significantly restricting affirmative action programs used in college admissions. This ruling presents significant challenges for all public and private universities, as well as for community colleges.

The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers recently recommended that colleges and universities immediately establish a review team to prepare for this likely moment. Their recommendations include looking at implications beyond admissions programs and ensuring a cross-functional group is at the table, not just the admissions team.

The association also specifically recommended that all colleges and universities develop a plan that includes strategy, response planning, communications, and stakeholder participation, meaning that communication leaders also need to be at the table. The failure to effectively communicate to key stakeholders at this moment could impact the institution’s reputation, in addition to enrollment and alumni donations, and could even lead to litigation or political ramifications.

When developing the strategy, communications leaders must be in lockstep with the institution’s operational response, which should ideally address a number of decisions:

  • How and in what way will the institution tailor its admissions practices to be responsive to the decision? Some schools may decide to drastically curtail any affirmative action programs while others may seek to walk a fine line with a revised program that they believe is defensible but may result in a legal challenge or political fallout.
  • If the institution does limit programs designed to admit more underrepresented students, will they also reduce programs or initiatives designed to attract underrepresented applicants, such as fee waivers, special orientation programs, or scholarships funded by third parties?
  • As a result of this decision, will the school eliminate other admissions practices that favor certain groups of applicants? For example, some schools are considering reducing or canceling legacy or donor-favored admissions programs.

Although communications considerations should be part of the discussion on operational decisions, key communications considerations must be developed into a separate plan. Key components of the plan are outlined below.

Mission-Aligned Media Statement

As with the SCOTUS ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson, some schools will strongly criticize the decision, but others may be more tempered. Most schools, and certainly those with affirmative action programs, should express their ongoing commitment to building a diverse and inclusive student body.

The statement should include any changes the school is making due to the decision. Even though schools have likely already decided on many of the changes they will make, they still may want to review them once the specifics of the decision are announced. It will be appropriate for some to say they are evaluating possible changes in light of the decision.

Proactive Campus and Alumni Community Message

The institution should distribute proactive communications to students, faculty and staff, and perhaps alumni, setting forth the school’s position and planned next steps. This response should be aligned with the school’s media strategy and be included on the school’s website.

Listening Sessions and Small Group Meetings with Affinity Groups

Administrators from across the institution should also plan to have listening and Q&A sessions with students, faculty and staff from affected communities to hear their thoughts and allow a safe space to voice concerns. As appropriate, they should consider direct communication with applicants and admitted students, especially from underrepresented populations.

Scenario Planning

There are myriad scenarios that each school must prepare for with media and community statements, including:

  1. Campus protests and potential counterprotests.
  2. Inquiries from affinity groups and underrepresented students about the impact of the decision and policy changes that will affect them.
  3. Criticism by some stakeholders that the school has gone too far in changing its policies and by others that it has not gone far enough.
  4. Comments by faculty members that generate public interest.
  5. Possible state legislation that further restricts affirmative action and DEI programs at public colleges and universities.

In terms of broader impact, institutions, especially public universities, will need to prepare for a now heightened focus from Republican lawmakers on their diversity, equity, and inclusion spending. Months before the ruling, we are already seeing lawmakers in states such as Oklahoma and Florida requesting significant oversight of how public universities spend their government dollars. We think it is likely that this trend continues, and the likely overturning of affirmative action may lead to a further dismantling of DEI initiatives in universities across the country.

Given the polarized atmosphere in which we live, the Supreme Court decision will ignite major commentary (and more) that could impact an institution’s reputation. While criticism and controversy will surely abound from the decision, those schools that are prepared for likely and even unlikely scenarios will be best positioned to minimize potential reputational impacts while at the same time remaining true to their missions and vision.

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