July 11, 2023
Senator J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) warned Harvard of a potential congressional investigation if the University fails to comply with the Supreme Court’s restrictions on the consideration of race in university admissions in a letter addressed to former Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow on Thursday.
Addressed most prominently to Bacow and Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, the letter accuses 10 institutions of “an intention to circumvent” the Supreme Court’s decision late last month that effectively struck down affirmative action in higher education. The letter also concludes with a series of questions Vance demands the universities answer.
In the letter, Vance wrote that the universities’ statements were “openly defiant and potentially unlawful” and “expressed open hostility” to the decision, warning that the Senate is prepared to investigate considerations of race in admissions that violate the Supreme Court decision.
However, nearly every university named in Vance’s letter confirmed in statements soon after the decision that they would comply with the Court’s ruling — and none indicated they would attempt to defy the ruling.
Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed that the University has received and will respond to Vance’s letter but declined to comment further.
Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Kenyon, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale did not respond to a request for comment.
Though not a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Vance has repeatedly leveled criticisms at higher education in the past. In a campaign speech at the National Conservatism Conference in 2021, Vance said, “The professors are the enemy,” quoting former U.S. President Richard Nixon.
Vance — a graduate of Yale Law School himself — advised the schools to “retain admissions documents in anticipation of future congressional investigations.”
“The United States Senate is prepared to use its full investigative powers to uncover circumvention, covert or otherwise, of the Supreme Court’s ruling,” the letter reads.
In a list of excerpts he called “disconcerting,” Vance highlighted each university’s statement of recommitment to diversity — including one sent on behalf of the entire Harvard leadership that Vance attributes only to Bacow.
“Harvard President Bacow boasted that ‘[f]or almost a decade, Harvard has vigorously defended an admissions system’ that the Supreme Court ruled unlawful and then ‘reaffirm[ed] the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives and lived experiences,’” Vance wrote.
Vance, however, failed to include in his letter that Harvard had — in the same statement — committed to abiding by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Preceding the portions cited in Vance’s letter, University leadership wrote that they “will certainly comply with the Court’s decision.”
Claudine Gay — who was poised to ascend to the presidency as the decision arrived — released a video message later that day with the same message: that Harvard would attempt to promote diversity while obeying the law.
“We will comply with the Court’s decision, but it does not change our values,” Gay said.
“We continue to believe — deeply – that a thriving, diverse intellectual community is essential to academic excellence and critical to shaping the next generation of leaders.”
Despite Bacow’s official departure from Massachusetts Hall last month, Vance mistakenly addressed his Thursday letter to Bacow and named him as the University’s president. Gay — Harvard’s first Black president — has occupied the school’s top post since Saturday.
The letter also accused nine other universities of similarly “alarming” declarations, but seven — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale — all explicitly confirmed in their statements that the universities would abide by the law.
Only two schools — Kenyon and Oberlin — did not have such a clause in their initial statements. Andrea Simakis, director of media relations at Oberlin College, confirmed in an emailed statement that “Oberlin will comply with the law.” Kenyon announced it would dedicate time to understanding the ruling and its constraints on the college’s admissions program.
Vance concluded the letter by directing six questions at the universities, requesting detailed outlines for how they plan to ensure admissions records are retained — including staff training — and admissions practices are revised. The letter set a deadline for response by July 21.