Military Academies Can Still Consider Race in Admissions: Supreme Court

Military Academies Can Still Consider Race in Admissions: Supreme Court
Cadets walk into Michie Stadium during West Point's graduation ceremony in West Point, N.Y., on May 27, 2023. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Zachary Stieber
Military academies are exempt from a new ruling that bans the consideration of race in university admissions, the Supreme Court said on June 29.

Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, ruled that regular universities can’t consider race in admissions, prohibiting so-called affirmative action.

But he also said in a footnote that the ruling doesn’t apply to the nation’s military academies.

“No military academy is a party to these cases ... and none of the courts below addressed the propriety of race-based admissions systems in that context. This opinion also does not address the issue, in light of the potentially distinct interests that military academies may present,” wrote Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee.

U.S. lawyers had sided with the universities that defended their affirmative action policies. In a supportive brief to the court, U.S. lawyers had argued that the U.S. military “depends on a well-qualified and diverse officer corps that is prepared to lead a diverse fighting force” and that the military has “long recognized that the Nation’s military strength and readiness depend on a pipeline of officers who are both highly qualified and racially diverse—and who have been educated in diverse environments that prepare them to lead.”

That led to the adoption by four of the five military academies of admission policies that consider race. The Merchant Marine Academy is the exception.

The academies that consider race have considered whether to use a percentage-based system that would leave a certain percentage of slots for minorities but that “would not be workable” because the academies “have a nationwide applicant pool and require a combination of academic excellence, leadership skills, physical ability, and personal character for success,” the lawyers said.

“Nor is an admissions policy based on socioeconomic status sufficient: West Point, for example, reports that its efforts to emphasize socioeconomic status have actually reduced racial diversity,” they added. “Finally, the academies employ many additional strategies, including recruiting diverse candidates, but thus far those strategies have proved insufficient on their own.”

Only about 1 in 5 officers come from service academies, with the rest coming from regular colleges. Officers usually must have a bachelor’s degree.

That means the military has also benefited from admissions policies that take race into account at civilian universities that host Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs, the lawyers said.

Officials with the military and the Department of Homeland Security wrote: “Selective universities that provide their students opportunities for cross-racial interaction are a critical source of future officers who are prepared to lead servicemembers of different racial and cultural backgrounds. The United States thus has a vital interest in ensuring that the Nation’s service academies and civilian universities retain the ability to achieve those educational benefits by considering race.”

The Department of Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion stated in 2020 that a diverse fighting force is “integral to overall readiness and mission accomplishment.” The board also stated that the military ”reflects and is inclusive of the American people it has sworn to protect.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said that creating a force that reflects the racial makeup of the nation “is a national security imperative” that will help the military “compete, deter, and win in today’s increasingly complex global security environment.”

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point has stated, “An Army not representative of the nation risks becoming illegitimate in the eyes of the people.”

One source of criticism was a panel convened by The Heritage Foundation, which said that U.S. officials offered no facts to support the claims that race-based admissions are needed at military academies or that achieving diversity would help with national security.

The cases that drew the new ruling were brought by Students for Fair Admissions against the University of North Carolina and Harvard University.

The Supreme Court ruled 6–3 against the schools.

Students for Fair Admissions declined to comment.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Biden appointee, dissented, writing, “[The majority] has come to rest on the bottom-line conclusion that racial diversity in higher education is only worth potentially preserving insofar as it might be needed to prepare Black Americans and other underrepresented minorities for success in the bunker, not the boardroom.”

Patrick Strawbridge, a lawyer representing Students for Fair Admissions, told justices during oral arguments that consideration of merits without factoring in race would lead to a diverse student body.

“These are the pipelines to leadership in our society. It might be military leadership. It might be business leadership. It might be leadership in the law. It might be leadership in all kinds of different areas. Universities are the pipeline to that leadership,” Strawbridge said. “And so, naturally, a government that treats people fairly and that makes opportunity open to all will necessarily see racial diversity.”

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