Columbia Law School Said It Would Require Applicants To Submit ‘Video Statements’ In Wake Of Affirmative Action Ban. Then it Backtracked.

Columbia University / Getty Images
August 1, 2023

Columbia Law School said on its website that it would require all applicants to submit a 90-second "video statement" in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ban on race-based college admissions.

"All applicants will be required to submit a short video, no longer than 90 seconds, addressing a question chosen at random," the school’s admissions page said Monday morning. "The video statement will allow applicants to provide the Admissions Committee with additional insight into their personal strengths."

Critics slammed the move as a thinly veiled attempt to defy the Supreme Court’s ruling and practice affirmative action by other means, using appearance as a proxy for race. Columbia’s decision "has all the hallmarks of a willful effort to evade the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act," said Edward Blum, the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiffs in the June case that outlawed affirmative action. "What is a 90-second video supposed to legitimately convey that a written statement could not?"

Reached for comment by the Washington Free Beacon, however, a spokesman for the law school said it had all been a misunderstanding and, by 6:00 PM Monday evening, Columbia had scrubbed the language from its website.

Archived image from Columbia University website captured Monday, July 31, 2023
Archived image from Columbia University website captured July 31, 2023

"Video statements will not be required as part of the Fall 2024 J.D. application when it becomes available in September," the law school told the Free Beacon in a statement. "It was inadvertently listed on the Law School's website and has since been corrected."

The law school required video statements from transfer applicants for the first time in May, part of a pilot program that Columbia said has now concluded. The language broadening that requirement to all applicants did not appear on the school’s website until after the Supreme Court’s ruling in late June, according to archived webpages reviewed by the Free Beacon.

"The timing is so suspect, I have to wonder, are they that dumb?" said a current Columbia Law student, before the requirement was taken down. "They’re not even trying to hide it."

Columbia did not say whether video statements would be optional in future application cycles.

The reversal came after Columbia’s law journals delayed masthead acceptances in the wake of the affirmative action ban, saying they had an "obligation" to ensure their selection process was "consistent with the law." While some law schools, including Harvard and Cornell, conducted optional interviews before the Supreme Court’s decision, none have implemented anything quite like Columbia’s short-lived requirement.

"Law schools shouldn’t select future lawyers based on personal appearance," a graduate of Columbia Law School, who is now a partner at a prominent New York law firm, said of the scuttled policy. "This was a transparent attempt to circumvent the Supreme Court's ruling, and, by extension, the Civil Rights Act."

Blum’s group has argued that the affirmative action ban means schools can no longer ask applicants to check a box indicating their race. As colleges and universities recalibrate their admissions policies in light of the ruling, videos may become an easy way for them to collect—and consider—data they are officially barred from using, said David Bernstein, a professor at George Mason Law School.

"This looks like an insurance policy in case their lawyers say ‘you’re not allowed to ask about race,’" Bernstein told the Free Beacon. "I have never heard of law school requiring video."

Though the Supreme Court barred universities from considering race as such, it did allow them to consider "an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life," a carve-out expected to increase schools’ reliance on interviews and essays. Admissions practices are already moving in that direction: Yale Law School piloted an interview program for the first time last fall—around the same time the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the affirmative action case—while Stanford, Dartmouth, and the University of Virginia added essay prompts about identity following the Court’s verdict.

Those sorts of work-arounds may be hard to challenge directly, said Dan Morenoff, the executive director of the American Civil Rights Project, a conservative law firm that specializes in reverse discrimination complaints. But video statements are on shakier footing and could open schools up to litigation.

"There’s no reason the school would need a video, so the requirement of such a submission is powerful evidence of an intent to discriminate," Morenoff said. "It’s hard to imagine a clearer pretextual work-around for the Supreme Court’s decision."

Morenoff added that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces workplace discrimination law, has long warned employers not to ask for photographs of applicants. "If needed for identification purposes," the agency says, "a photograph may be obtained after an offer of employment is made and accepted."