An American flag waves in front of the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Nov. 2, 2020. Credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

Three Maine colleges have joined the fight against the latest challenge to affirmative action in college admissions that has come before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Bates, Bowdoin and Colby colleges joined 30 other institutions this week in filing an amicus brief with the Supreme Court supporting Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s use of race in screening applicants for acceptance.

The plaintiff in the case, Students for Fair Admissions, argues that the practices at both schools undermine Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination by schools that receive federal funding, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The group effectively seeks to remove race entirely from the college admissions process, while colleges use race in an effort to promote diversity.

Lower courts rejected the challenge, citing more than 40 years of high court rulings that allow colleges and universities to consider race in admissions decisions. But the colleges and universities must do so in a narrowly tailored way to promote diversity.

The court’s most recent pronouncement was in 2016, in a 4-3 decision upholding the admissions program at the University of Texas against a challenge brought by a white woman. But the composition of the court has changed since then, with the addition of three conservative justices appointed by former President Donald Trump.

In their brief, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby and the 30 other private colleges argued that admissions practices that consider race as a factor in acceptance are key to developing and fostering a diverse student body, something that should be a compelling interest for the government.

“Each college deliberately seeks to enroll and house on campus a highly diverse group of students — from different states and countries; from urban and rural backgrounds; homeschooled, private-schooled, and public-schooled; with differing economic circumstances; with different kinds of experiences, talent, or athletic ability; students who will be the first in their families to go to college,” the brief reads.

The group of schools that joined the brief are small, selective liberal arts colleges, including Williams College in Massachusetts, Vassar College in New York and Middlebury College in Vermont. Numerous studies have shown that racial and other forms of diversity improve students’ learning experiences and reduce prejudice, they argue.

“Diverse educational environments prepare students for success as adults in a dynamic, democratic, and increasingly diverse society,” the brief states.

Additionally, the college argued, the court has previously granted especially selective institutions “educational autonomy,” meaning they have the right to pick students who they think will best contribute to a “robust exchange of ideas.”

Students for Fair Admissions accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American students by using a subjective standard to gauge traits that include likability, courage and kindness. Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina is accused of discriminating against white and Asian applicants by giving preference to Black, Hispanic and Native American ones.

The Supreme Court is slated to hear arguments in the case during its next term, which starts in October.

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...