The Wealthy Donors Behind the Assault on Affirmative Action

Supreme Court building. Bob Korn/shutterstock

It wasn’t a surprise that the Supreme Court ended its term by pulling the plug on affirmative action in college admissions — but the decision promises to resonate for years to come. 

In their dissents, Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson and Sandra Sotomayor predicted that the ruling will deepen racial inequality. Blasting the conservative majority’s “let-them-eat-cake obliviousness” in announcing “‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat,” Jackson pointed out that “deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.… It is no small irony that the judgment the majority hands down today will forestall the end of race-based disparities in this country, making the colorblind world the majority wistfully touts much more difficult to accomplish.”

Soon to be released research by the Education Trust confirms Jackson’s point that when it comes to colorblindness, the U.S. still has a long way to go. Ed Trust found that, even with affirmative action in effect, selective public and private colleges and universities have not succeeded in enrolling representative numbers of Black or Latino students. The authors predict that the situation will only grow worse, given the recent Supreme Court ruling, unless institutions do much more to boost diversity.

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority clearly wasn’t phased by the evidence — and neither was Edward Blum, who has led the decades-long effort to undermine affirmative action and other race-based policies. Blum, a former stockbroker, ran as a Republican in a Texas congressional race in 1992. When he lost, he attributed his poor showing to racial gerrymandering. Since then, Blum has been singularly focused on eliminating considerations of race and ethnicity in college admissions — and in any other forums where they’re applied. 

Blum brought the case that resulted in the 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County vs. Holder, which seriously undermined the Voting Rights Act. He later created the group Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) specifically to challenge Harvard and UNC’s admission policies, a challenge that led to in the recent Supreme Court decision. Still, it would be misleading to see Blum as a lonely maverick, single-handedly battling affirmative action, as Slate pointed out last year. In fact, Blum and his organization have the backing of powerful conservative funders who share his grievances and bankroll his crusade. 

“World’s worst fundraiser”

In a recent New York Times interview, Edward Blum was modest about his ability to raise money — and, as he has in other interviews — implied that his work is fueled primarily by the generosity of the thousands of small donors who support his cause.

“I am the world’s worst fundraiser,” Blum said. “Considering these cases have now been going on for nine years. We’ve never really had a robust, organized fundraising campaign. Fortunately — fortunately!— there have been a handful of foundations and a handful of high-net-worth individuals and, I should add, now approaching 7,000 individuals who have gone online to make donations to Students for Fair Admissions.” 

The “handful” of foundations and high-net-worth individuals who support SFFA could be better described as a network of mega-wealthy and powerful conservative donors. While there’s always a delay in public tax records, there’s a good amount of data out there on the flow of donations coming from these familiar names. Blum and SFFA have received much of their support — more than $8.5 million between 2015 through 2020 — from conservative funders such as the Searle Freedom Trust, DonorsTrust and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, as the Harvard Crimson reported last year.

Students for Fair Admissions has also received funding from The 85 Fund (formerly the Judicial Education Project), which is part of a network of organizations linked to Leonard Leo, the former head and current co-chairman of the Federalist Society. The Federalist Society has helped promote conservative candidates for the nation’s courts, including six of the current Supreme Court justices. Tax records show that SFFA received $250,000 from The 85 Fund in 2020, more than a third of its revenue that year.

The 85 Fund also gave the group Speech First $700,000 in 2020, as The Lever and ProPublica reported. Speech First is a conservative nonprofit organization that advocates for college students who claim their rights to free speech have been violated (among other causes, it opposes college diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, which it considers indoctrination). Speech First filed amicus briefs in support of Students for Fair Admissions in the recent Supreme Court case, and called it “a great day for our country” when affirmative action was overturned. 

DonorsTrust contributed over $2 million to SFFA from 2017 to 2019, according to tax documents. As a conservative donor-advised fund (DAF), DonorsTrust provides a way for many philanthropists on the right to easily support their preferred causes without disclosing their names in public filings. In fact, it’s a big part of the reason it’s so hard to know exactly who is behind these efforts.

Through DonorsTrust and the affiliated Donors Capital Fund, DAF holders have backed a host of conservative causes (my colleague Philip Rojc called DonorsTrust “the right’s favorite DAF”). During Judiciary Committee hearings on Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court confirmation, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse described DonorsTrust as “a gigantic identity-scrubbing device for the right wing.”

DonorsTrust has helped conservative donors channel funds toward Edward Blum for years. It also acts as a fiscal sponsor. The nonprofit legal foundation Blum directs, Project on Fair Representation, started out as a DonorsTrust program, according to a Media Matters report. In a 2018 blog post, Lawson Bader, DonorsTrust president and CEO, took some credit for SFFA’s case against affirmative action, pointing out that his organization’s “DNA floats in the bloodstream” of groups like Blum’s.

All of these conservative organizations form a close-knit circle: The 85 Fund receives funding from anonymous donors through DonorsTrust, for example, and the fund itself has moved funding through DonorsTrust — $71 million in 2021, tax documents show. The Sarah Scaife Foundation was an early and ongoing supporter of the Federalist Society, and has also donated to Speech First. Kimberly Dennis, the president of the Searle Freedom Trust, which gave SFFA $1.5 million from 2017 to 2019, is the chairman of the board of DonorsTrust and serves on the board of the Federalist Society. 

The funders who fueled the fight against affirmative action are some of the same organizations that have pushed back on efforts to mitigate climate change, supported attacks on public education — including campaigns against so-called critical race theory — and provided funding for groups promoting book bans, as IP has reported.

Affirmative action for the ultra wealthy

Edward Blum and SFFA have no intention of closing up shop after their victory at the Supreme Court. “We’re going to probably take off our litigation cap for now and put on a new ‘watchdog’ cap,” Blum said on the DonorsTrust podcast in July. “We’re going to be examining what public universities are doing with their admissions policies… and we are going to dig deep into the private-school world of admissions officers.”

In fact, shortly after the Supreme Court decision, SFFA sent a letter to 150 public and private colleges and universities with a list of demands for how the institutions should comply with the ruling. In interviews with Inside Higher Ed, representatives of higher education associations balked at SFFA’s interpretation of the Supreme Court decision. As one put it, “Colleges and universities will not need to rely on SFFA for legal guidance in the recent Supreme Court ruling. Institutions are well-equipped to interpret the law with their own legal counsel and governance structures.”

The U.S. Department of Education also pushed back at a recent National Summit on Equal Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington. Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary in the department’s Office for Civil Rights, didn’t use SFFA’s name, but referred to its letter and demands, and urged college representatives to wait for guidance from the Department of Education instead — reassurance that prompted applause from the audience, according to the New York Times

Besides monitoring college admissions policies, what’s next on Blum’s agenda? He has fought against affirmative action on corporate boards through his group Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment; he has also indicated that he may focus on racial preferences in hiring, as well. 

But if Blum and Students for Fair Admissions are really interested in fairness, they should train their sites on a demographic that is extraordinarily privileged in college admissions: the ultra wealthy. 

According to new research by Raj Chetty, David Deming and John Friedman at Harvard’s Opportunity Insights, children of the very rich are in an affirmative action category all their own. Among the findings: “Students from the top 1% of the income distribution are nearly twice as likely to be admitted to Ivy-Plus colleges as compared to applicants from low- or middle-income families with comparable SAT/ACT scores.” This reality just perpetuates wealth inequality, as the researchers point out: “Attending an Ivy-Plus instead of a flagship public college triples students’ chances of obtaining jobs at prestigious firms and substantially increases their chances of earning in the top 1%.”

That’s far from any reasonable definition of fair admissions, but don’t expect Blum and his wealthy backers to take up that fight anytime soon.