What the End of Affirmative Action Means for Westchester Schools

Education officials weigh in on their ongoing commitments to DEI and the impact of affirmative action being ruled illegal.

At the core of any Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative lies a strategic commitment to strengthen a community by building a welcoming environment that values and respects the unique identities and experiences of all individuals.

In chase of that standard, key goals include pursuing fair representation, promoting a sense of belonging across different races, ethnicities, ages, abilities, genders, sexual orientations, and religions, and ensuring that all people are treated justly and equitably.

From the 1972 passage of Title IX legislation, enacted to eliminate gender-based discrimination in education, to the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as well as recent racial-justice movements, institutions of higher education have served as centers where societal shifts take root — and where coordinated efforts to change attitudes through policy and practice have shifted the perspectives of members of the academic community and beyond.

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Kevin McKenna, Director of Admission & Inclusive Outreach Jennifer Gayles, and Admission Assistant Alivia Nosrati ’22; The Siegel Center at Sarah Lawrence Colleges is being transformed into a home for student affinity and religious groups, offices for staff focused on DEI, and communal cooking, dining, and gathering spaces for all students, expected to open for the fall 2024 semester.
Kevin McKenna, Director of Admission & Inclusive Outreach Jennifer Gayles, and Admission Assistant Alivia Nosrati ’22; The Siegel Center at Sarah Lawrence Colleges is being transformed into a home for student affinity and religious groups, offices for staff focused on DEI, and communal cooking, dining, and gathering spaces for all students, expected to open for the fall 2024 semester. Photo by Doug Schneider.

The current climate has been particularly challenging for some higher-education institutions who are trying to further the goals of existing DEI policies. Not only did the Supreme Court render its decision to bar race-conscious admissions (affirmative action) last summer, but many states have also put forth bills to ban or curb DEI efforts at public colleges and universities. Critics find the programs divisive or say they appear unfairly sensitive to certain groups over others.

Marvin Krislov, president of Pace University (with campuses in Pleasantville and White Plains), who has spent his academic career advancing the mission of DEI in higher education, believes there is reason for optimism.

“Fortunately, the major institutions of American society now recognize the importance of diversity in remaining competitive, effective, and legitimate in a global market,” Krislov says. “Employers will continue to seek diverse talent, the military will still seek a diverse officer corps, and colleges and universities will experiment with new ways to ensure their student bodies remain diverse.”

In Westchester, there is a sense of pride among colleges and universities about their dedication to cultivating inclusive campus cultures that embrace diversity and contribute to an enriching educational environment.

We interviewed representatives from various institutions of higher learning around the county to ask about their approaches toward DEI — and to learn about possible impacts of the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action.

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Pace University

Stephanie Akunvabey

Chief Diversity Officer

Pace University
Photo courtesy of Pace University

“We are always thinking about how we can make the Pace experience accessible to as many students as possible.”

The institution has made a commitment to becoming an anti-racist campus and we really wanted to focus on making sure that our campus was welcoming for faculty, staff, and students of color. We also are thinking about other types of diversity and points of intersection of identities, so that our campus is as inclusive as possible — to create great learning opportunities and great working environments for people from all different backgrounds.

We received a philanthropic gift to create the Gosin Center for Equity and Inclusion and we are really excited about the way that work will start to take shape. For example, we are looking at innovative ways we can encourage students of color to think about what entrepreneurship looks like; we understand there has been a history for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color of being underrepresented in certain professional fields. So, we are really trying to push the envelope on making sure that folks have access to different career opportunities that they may not have considered in the past.

Pace has not considered race as a determining factor in its admissions decisions, so there has not been a stark impact in the way there may have been at other institutions. [In terms of the Supreme Court ruling], I am personally mindful of the larger implications for the educational landscape. Our mission is “Opportunitas,” so we are always thinking about how we can make the Pace experience accessible to as many students as possible, including innovative ways to administer scholarships. We want students to have spaces to thrive and explore more of who they are because college is such a time of self-exploration and self-development.

Purchase College

Lisa Miles-Boyce

Chief Diversity Officer

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Purchase College
Photos by Isabelle Levy

We have as a motto, “Think Wide Open” at Purchase, and it is the kind of place that really emphasizes inclusiveness, diversity, and diversity of thought. Being a state university, one of our missions is equitable and quality education, despite background or whatever differences may exist. It is a school of conservatories, and we encourage a lot of creativity. You will see that in curriculums and clubs, DEI is a huge part of the environment and mission of the college.

Philosophically, [the Supreme Court ruling] is problematic on a broader level, but in terms of practice, it is not going to technically impact us in the way that we recruit. We recently got awarded a $3-million grant to improve our initiatives as they relate to the Hispanic community, and we do a lot of recruitment in area schools — to ensure that we get as broad a candidate pool as possible. Our approach to scholarship awards has not changed.

Latinx club at Purchase College
Latinx club at Purchase College. Photos by Isabelle Levy.

What a learning outcome should be is that you have interacted with individuals from all different backgrounds, that you’ve infused creativity in the way that you think. I really think it is a campus that encourages and invites free thought.

Manhattanville College

Dr. Cindy Porter

Vice President, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Manhattanville College
Photos courtesy of Manhattanville

We have always had our pulse on issues related to social justice and those related to inclusion, equity, and diversity. We strongly recognize the need and the benefit to our student body and the entire community.

We don’t consider race in admissions, and we have a very diverse student population (10-percent African American, 30-percent Hispanic, students who identify as multiple races, and a small percentage of Asian students). There is diversity in Westchester County and our provost, for example, has been working on dual-enrollment partnerships with many urban schools in the area. If a student is in high school and wants to take college courses, they can participate in that at Manhattanville. We take the approach that inclusion is everyone’s responsibility and as an institution, we really embrace the ideas and principles of inclusive excellence.

Students gather in The Center for Inclusion in Tenney Hall for an LGBTQ Series called Grateful to Be Gay Wednesday.
Students gather in The Center for Inclusion in Tenney Hall for an LGBTQ Series called Grateful to Be Gay Wednesday. Photos courtesy of Manhattanville.

Campus climate is another important area for us, one where you don’t know what you don’t know. We are implementing, for the first time in our history, a campus-climate survey geared toward our faculty, to help us understand what the individual’s perception of inclusion is on campus, and how welcome people feel. Our approach to the scholarship process has not changed. DEI involves taking a hard look at what you are doing, who has been invited, and who is participating in those conversations — and looking at data.

Sarah Lawrence College

Kevin McKenna

Vice President for Enrollment, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid

Sarah Lawrence College
Photo by Doug Schneider

We strive to be as diverse a community as possible and to foster an environment of inclusive education for everybody here. In the admissions office, we try to recruit students from as many different backgrounds: demographically, socio-economically, experience and interest-wise, as we possibly can. As a liberal-arts college, we really feel that you learn best from differences across the table, and as you share experiences, outlooks, and perspectives, you learn more. Like a lot of liberal-arts colleges, we have historically been a primarily white institution, but we have made as much progress as we’ve been able to over the decades by prioritizing where we recruit and the roles our admissions recruiters play.

It is extraordinarily important to our college’s mission that the students know that they belong here and that we are fostering and cultivating an inclusive environment. In fact, we are a campus of students from almost all 50 states and over 50 countries; we have a warm, welcoming, inclusive student body and student identity groups that provide community for anyone who chooses to call Sarah Lawrence home for four years.

Following the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, we made a kind of bold move to change one of our essay questions [‘Describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced, or affected by the Court’s decision’]. We did that because we want our students to take on bold, challenging topics in society; it is naïve to think that students would not have opinions about decisions that are being made on their behalf by judges.

“Like a lot of liberal-arts colleges, we have historically been a primarily white institution, but we have made as much progress as we’ve been able to over the decades by prioritizing where we recruit and the roles our admissions recruiters play.”

Sarah Lawrence students join with Vice President & Dean of Students Dave Stanfield inside the Siegel Center to offer feedback and share ideas for the soon-to-be-renovated space.
Sarah Lawrence students join with Vice President & Dean of Students Dave Stanfield inside the Siegel Center to offer feedback and share ideas for the soon-to-be-renovated space. Courtesy of Sarah Lawrence.

Iona University

Dr. Alison Munsch

Chief Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Officer

Iona University
Courtesy of Iona University. Courtesy of Iona University.

The acronym DEI can mean different things to different constituents. Diversity has many dimensions and is the sum of the ways that people are both different and similar; it has many facets that intersect in a wide variety of ways, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, immigration status, and others. Diversity is not about blaming or supporting some groups to the detriment of others. It is about embracing the different ways that we can all be human.

Equity entails an intentional focus to reduce disparities in opportunities, experiences, and outcomes for all members of our campus community. Equity means trying the best we can to create systems and processes so that people from all backgrounds have a fair chance and opportunity to succeed. Inclusion reflects being in an environment where people are welcomed and connected.

“Diversity has many dimensions and is the sum of the ways that people are both different and similar.”

Grounded in our Christian Brothers identity and in keeping with our pursuit and practice of the social justice imperatives of the Catholic Faith, our mission is to advance a diverse, equitable campus culture, that is inclusive, thereby creating a sense of belonging where diverse communities are celebrated, can excel and can thrive through collective effort and strategic collaborations across the university and neighboring communities.

Dr. Alison Munsch, center, with Iona University students in Times Square as part of The Equity Collective initiative
Dr. Alison Munsch, center, with Iona University students in Times Square as part of The Equity Collective initiative. By Ben Hider.

SUNY Westchester Community College

Rinardo Reddick

Chief Diversity Officer

SUNY Westchester Community College
Photos courtesy of SUNY Westchester Community College.

Our approach to DEI is facilitating the urgent, sustained, and comprehensive work of creating a welcoming campus climate in which all members are valued and have a voice. We value a deep, collective understanding that an institutional and personal commitment to DEI is an authentic commitment to meaningful lifelong learning. Ensuring fairness and accessibility in higher education is a core foundation of our policies and procedures.

It helps the entire community; a recent economic-impact study determined that SUNY WCC generated over $585 million in added income to the county. The manifestation of our mission and vision helps SUNY WCC be an engine of upward economic mobility for the county and beyond.

Black History Month opening ceremony at SUNY WCC; performance from African Dance, Arts & Culture group, Chiku Awali
Black History Month opening ceremony at SUNY WCC; performance from African Dance, Arts & Culture group, Chiku Awali. Photos courtesy of SUNY Westchester Community College.

The impact of the ruling against race-conscious admissions has been minimal, in that SUNY WCC has an open admissions policy and is one of the most diverse campuses in all of New York State. As for scholarships, we have not made any changes — the mission of SUNY WCC is to provide an accessible, high-quality, and affordable education that meets the needs of our diverse community. We don’t just welcome diversity on our campus, we are proud of our diversity.

As SUNY Chancellor John King, Jr. stated, ‘At SUNY, our resolve to provide opportunity for all has never been stronger. The commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion will continue to be a factor in every goal we pursue, every program we create, every policy we promulgate, and every decision we make.’

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