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You may have seen the topic of affirmative action re-emerge in the last few months as the Supreme Court revisits this controversial issue. Two new cases are now at the forefront of the 50-year-old debate, as the Court continues to question the efficacy, the fairness, and most of all the constitutionality of considering race in college admissions.

”Affirmative action was enacted as a tool to rectify the historical inequity caused by many years of racism by using policies, legislation, programs, and procedures to improve the educational or employment opportunities of historically excluded groups”

A Brief History

Affirmative action emerged in the 1960s amid the civil rights movement to repair the damage of years of racism and discrimination by diversifying all-White universities.  While affirmative action was intended to correct historical inequity, it has been under fire from its inception. Starting with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), Supreme Court cases established precedent for universities to use race as one of many factors to increase college admission rates for historically excluded racial groups. The most recent ruling, Fisher v. University of Texas, decided that race could be used when race-neutral alternatives were insufficient. Two cases currently on the docket, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina continue the central question of whether race considerations in the college admissions process violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. To date, nine states have banned affirmative action and as the Supreme Court takes on these two new cases, we may see more states take a strong stance in either direction.

“While the best approach isn’t clear cut, most agree on the importance of diversity. A survey found that a majority of college students believe that racial/ethnic diversity improves the social experiences (62%) and learning environment (59%) of schools”.

Some Food for Thought

At the core of the affirmative action discussion is the question of how to rectify historical inequity, and if we ought to rectify it at all. While this monumental question deserves a dedicated blog on another day, a brief discussion on the objectivity of college admissions, meritocracy as a concept, and fairness in the application process offers helpful food for thought.

It’s tempting to believe that grades, test scores and extracurricular activities provide an objective assessment of an applicant, however, college admissions is not an objective process. Admissions teams weigh various aspects of applicants as well as institutional priorities with the ultimate goal of building a well-rounded and diverse student body. While some may believe we live in a colorblind or post-race society, research shows that race and systemic racism continue to shape experiences, opportunities, and outcomes. The ability to consider race, systemic inequity, and s university’s own institutional needs and historical inequity may aide institutions in arriving at best admissions decisions.

One of the main arguments against affirmative action is that it is unfair to offer admission based on anything other than merit. However, this has already been happening for White and wealthy families for over a hundred years through Legacy admissions. Legacy admissions give non-merit-based admissions preference to students whose families have historical ties to the university.  A study of thirty elite universities found that if a parent or relative went to the school, for example, they are up to 45% more likely to be admitted. With three quarters of the top 100 schools implementing legacy admissions, this program plays a big role in perpetuating homogeneity of the student body at elite universities.

And then there’s meritocracy as a concept in admissions.  Believing that students are rewarded with college admissions purely due to skill and effort would lead us to troubling conclusions based on the racial demographics of elite universities. Luckily, the concept of meritocracy has long been debunked as it perpetuates the kind of inequity it aims to eliminate. Understanding that meritocracy is a myth in our society frees us to think more holistically about systems that provide an advantage for some, and helps us begin to consider how to level the playing field.  

Takeaways for the Workplace

While affirmative action is being questioned in the context of schools, impacts may be felt in other places that want to improve the diversity, equity, and inclusion of their organizations. As you set data-driven corporate DEI goals, it’s important that the DEI team, HR team, and legal team partner together to prepare for potential similar challenges that may arise from your DEI strategy. To prepare for these challenges, consider these points:

  • Ensure data-driven DEI goals are carefully crafted to comply with employment law. Partner with your legal team to ensure you prepare for objections that may come up internally and externally.
  • Revisit job descriptions and promotion criteria and rethink your ideas around traditional merit and who it was made to attract and promote. Consider how it may be limiting your efforts for diversity by overlooking non-traditional talent.
  • Communicate the background of the DEI strategy with the company so employees understand issues around historical inequity for your industry, organization, or region and how your DEI strategy helps to address these issues.
  • Ensure the leadership team is bought into the development and is fluent in the DEI strategy and willing to address objections that come up internally or externally.

Stay the course. It’s tempting to get cold feet about moving forward with your DEI strategy when affirmative action is called into question, yet again, however remember why you’ve decided to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion and continue to do the work.

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The Editor

Ngozi Okeh is an experienced leader with a history of driving efforts to conceptualize, define, assess and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as strategic business processes. Ngozi is currently the Director of DEI at a leading marketing technology company where she develops and executes enterprise-wide DEI initiatives through rigorous strategic planning efforts, community partnerships, leadership collaboration, strategy evaluation, and careful management of communication and buy-in as well as policies and procedures.  Previously, she worked at an independent mortgage bank, where… View Profile