Jonathan Okamura: The End Of Affirmative Action Likely Would Not Affect The University Of Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

But the university should consider new ways to diversify its student body.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce its ruling on race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions this month in two related cases — Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College and the same organization versus the University of North Carolina.

Given the conservative 6 to 3 majority on the court, the expectation is that it will end the use of race as a factor in evaluating student applications to college. 

Such a decision will reverse previous Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action in college admissions, beginning with its University of California v. Bakke decision in 1978. The court asserted that universities have a “compelling interest” in ensuring diversity for the educational benefits that it provides for all students, not just racial minorities. 

Over the decades, despite the rightward shift in U.S. racial politics, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of race-conscious admissions policies in subsequent decisions — Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, and Fisher v. the University of Texas in 2013 and 2016. But the racial climate in America and the ideological composition of the court have shifted even more to the right since that last ruling. 

Despite the rhetoric about fair admissions, ongoing legal challenges against race-based affirmative action need to be understood as part of a larger political movement, including anti-immigration initiatives, to establish a colorblind America in which the significance of race continues to be denied.

One might assume that the Supreme Court decision will affect the University of Hawaii, particularly its flagship Manoa campus. However, I don’t think that it will have much of an impact because the university lacks a race-conscious affirmative action policy or program for admissions, despite its claims for several decades to be an “equal opportunity/affirmative action institution.”

UH recruitment programs directed to certain student populations can be considered race-neutral because of their emphasis on socioeconomic and educational disadvantage, rather than race, ethnicity or indigeneity, for accepting participants. 

At UH Manoa, the College Opportunities Program is perhaps the oldest such recruitment initiative for Hawaii students. COP began in 1970 with federal funds, but starting in 1973 the Legislature provided it with line-item funding, indicative of its strong support for the program.

University of Hawaii graduate Jonathan Okamura column
The University of Hawaii has long struggled with how to achieve ethnic equality in its student body. ( Courtesy of HSTA report”Unequal Opportunity: Ethnic Inequality in Public Education in Hawaii”/2016)

COP is aimed at Hawaii high school graduates who may not meet the minimum admission requirements for UH Manoa such as GPA, are socioeconomically disadvantaged and academically underprepared, yet demonstrate potential for college success. Participants who successfully complete the COP summer residential program at UH Manoa are admitted for the fall semester and receive academic advising during freshman year. 

Another recruitment program, the Manoa Access Initiative or MAI, meaning “welcome” in olelo Hawaii, is a collaboration between the Office of Admissions and the Office of Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity that began in 2015. Participants, who must be Hawaii residents, are selected by the admissions office from applicants who closely missed meeting the minimum requirements for admission. 

They are accepted at UH Manoa on the condition that they participate in MAI program activities, including enrolling in a designated Ethnic Studies 101 introductory course as a cohort their first semester. Students also participate in a weekly “lab” section focused on developing their academic skills for college. 

In an email, Nikki Kahealani Chun, the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Interim Director of Admissions at UH Manoa, assessed the impact of a possible Supreme Court ruling against using race as a factor in admissions.

“The SCOTUS decision’s impact on admissions policies will depend on the extent to which the decision mandates policies and practice,” she said. “Currently, UH Manoa has relatively open admissions policies and practices; if a student meets our academic eligibility requirements, we will offer them admission.” 

Affirming UH Manoa’s race-neutral admissions policy, she continued, “Our admission decisions do not hinge on the studentʻs racial/ethnic identity.” 

Besides race-based college admissions policies, diversity, equity and inclusion offices and programs have also come under attack but without bothering to file lawsuits. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law this month that will prohibit diversity, equity and inclusion offices and initiatives at state higher education institutions. 

The bill also bans mandatory DEI training for any purpose, including presumably for prevention of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis vowed in February to stop state universities from having DEI programs.

UH Manoa has had an Office of Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity for the past 30 years. SEED administers almost 20 diversity-related programs, including those for Native Hawaiians, ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ+ students, veterans, and students with disabilities. If UH Manoa was in Texas, most of these programs would no longer exist next January, despite their focus on student retention rather than recruitment.

Instead of a race-conscious affirmative action admissions policy, UH has made DEI a major policy initiative. As I wrote in an earlier column, the UH Strategic Plan for 2023-2029 includes “Diversity and Equity” as one of its five “foundational principles.” 

University of Hawaii at Manoa with a view from Tantalus.
University of Hawaii has made diversity, equity and inclusion a major policy. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

This principle asserts the university’s commitment “to provide higher education opportunities for all, especially those historically underrepresented including Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Filipino, economically disadvantaged, first generation, LGBTQ+, rural and students with disabilities.” 

The principle does not specifically mention admissions and, while it refers to Native Hawaiians and other ethnic minorities, it contends that the university will “provide higher education opportunities for all.” This terminology may protect the diversity and equity principle from legal challenge as a race-based policy. 

Vice Provost Chun addressed the possibility that programs for Native Hawaiians, such as Native Hawaiian Student Services at UH Manoa, might be subject to legal challenge if the Supreme Court prohibits race-conscious affirmative action.

“It pains me, as someone who has worked in higher education for 20 years, to realize that this case opens so much more to challenge and scrutiny in ways that were protected before,” she said. “I think those challenges are possible, especially if someone wants to come for our communities in such harmful ways.”

Indigenous and ethnic minority underrepresentation is a critical problem of long standing in the UH system.

Despite recruitment programs such as COP and MAI and DEI offices, such as SEED, Native Hawaiian, Filipino, and other ethnic minority undergraduate students remain hugely underrepresented at UH Manoa relative to their percentages in the public schools. In fall 2022, Native Hawaiians (14.1%) and Filipinos (10.8%) were well below their percentages in the public schools, where Native Hawaiians account for 22.6% of students and Filipinos 23.5%. 

However, Kanaka undergraduates are more than proportionately represented at UH West Oahu and UH Hilo where they are the largest groups, which can be attributed to the significant presence of Native Hawaiian faculty and academic programs. 

Indigenous and ethnic minority underrepresentation is a critical problem of long standing in the UH system. To its credit, one of the most significant actions taken by the university in recent years to address this problem has been to hold tuition steady or raise it minimally. Since 2020, resident undergraduate tuition has not increased throughout the UH system. 

In January, the UH Board of Regents approved a new four-year tuition schedule that will keep tuition at the same rate for the next two years at all campuses. Resident undergraduate tuition will increase by 2% starting in the 2025-26 academic year and in the following year at UH Manoa, UH Hilo and UH West Oahu but not at the community colleges, where it will remain the same. 

I see two other means to address minority underrepresentation, particularly at the four-year institutions.

The first is to boost the transfer of minority students from the UH community colleges, where they have a considerable presence, to UH Manoa, UH West Oahu and UH Hilo. Over the decades, a good number of program and policy initiatives has been proposed to resolve the transfer issue, and I will add another. All students with a prescribed minimum number of credits, say 15, will receive a tuition waiver for their first semester after transferring. 

The other possible way to enhance minority enrollment at the four-year campuses is to recruit Early College students to those institutions rather than have them enter the community colleges after graduating from high school. Early College students have earned some community college credits, and some of them have already graduated with associate of arts degrees. Again, a tuition waiver for their first semester can be provided as an incentive to pursue their education at a four-year UH campus.

Tuition waivers do constitute lost income for the university, but that financial loss will be more than made up by students continuing their education for a few more years until they graduate. The much greater gain for Hawaii is reducing ethnic inequality by providing a viable means for socioeconomic mobility — a college degree.

Read this next:

Eric Stinton: Why I Have A Pride Flag In My Classroom

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

affirmative action should be expanded to include class.

libsoc · 3 months ago

Affirmative action, at the time it was conceived, was viewed as a temporary emergency measure whose goal was to immediately increase the diversity of college students and new government hires, without waiting for the K-12 education pipeline to be fixed to provide equal opportunity to historically excluded groups. Sixty years later, many public school systems are still pushing subpar curricula that are light on academics, market relevance, rigor, and excellence; affirmative action is still here; and dead last in racial economic equality are the deep-blue Washington DC, Illinois and Wisconsin (with Michigan and Minnesota also in the bottom 10). Obviously, we are doing something very wrong - starting with preschool and elementary school.

Chiquita · 3 months ago

The state, and the country, has a dire shortage of tradespeople - electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc. There is a much greater need for young people to replace all of these folks who are retiring than to churn out more Soc, Psy and - dare I say it - Ethnic Studies majors. And, as an Econ grad, I know that when demand exceeds supply, prices (wages) go up - and if you don't think so, then you haven't had to hire a tradesperson recently.

GaryD · 3 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.