A group of eight college presidents met with Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday at the White House to discuss concerns and challenges facing colleges and their students after the Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
“These leaders are leading at an extraordinary time for many reasons,” said Harris. “They are building the future of our nation to meet the challenges of the moment but we are also doing that in the context of a decision by the United States Supreme Court to take a constitutional right that had been recognized from the people of America, from the women of America.”
The presidents said that the Dobbs ruling has both short- and long-term consequences for higher education, including potential impacts to medical school programs, reproductive care available to students on campus, privacy laws, and student mental health.
Women under the age of 24 are most likely to seek abortion care. This includes 92 percent of women in college, who are also three times more likely to experience sexual assault than other women.
“The biggest challenge that schools’ faculty, staff, and students face today is the confusion and uncertainty around a 50-state patchwork quilt of varying laws and guidance that frankly has only become more complex and more chaotic with the Dobbs decision,”said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, who was also present at the meeting. “The clock is ticking. Every campus and every university in America [must] figure out what can and cannot be done to support students, faculty, and staff in particular, to answer the questions whether their students do or do not have access to the full range of reproductive health.”
Some in attendance come from states that have enacted near total bans on abortion since the Supreme Court ruling in June. This included Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College, and Glenda Glover, president of Tennessee State University.
“Young men and women are facing mounting challenges to secure a quality academic experience and educational experience. … The Dobbs decision dramatically worsens this reality. It disproportionately impacts women with lesser means, who are more often than not women of color and it limits basic access to quality health care oftentimes provided by organizations that are committed to reproductive rights,” said Ambar. “College campuses tend to be microcosms of society and so these inequalities will play out on our campuses in the same way they are playing out in society.”
Others came from campuses in states that have moved to protect abortion rights, yet still expressed similar concerns about how the ruling could still impact their students, especially students coming to their colleges from states with abortion bans. This included Audrey Bilger, president of Reed College, Roberta Cordano, president of Gallaudet University, Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, Howard Gillman, chancellor of the University of California at Irvine, Philip Hanlon, president of Dartmouth College, and Félix Matos Rodriguez , the chancellor of the City University of New York.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was also in attendance.
A Closed-Door Meeting
The conversation occurred in a closed-door meeting with Vice President Harris, however, the vice president and the presidents offered comments summarizing their concerns to the public before the start of the meeting. Mitchell, who spoke with Inside Higher Ed after the meeting, said it was, “really powerful and productive.”
The central focus of the meeting, according to Mitchell, was on providing accurate information to students and finding answers to new, complicated legal questions about what services college campuses can and cannot offer after the ruling on Dobbs.
“Secretary Cardona and the Vice President both talked about the importance of collecting and disseminating accurate information so that students, faculty, and staff would know sort of what services are available under the law, what services are not, and to be able to get good information out quickly especially with the beginning of the school year upon us,” said Mitchell.
Many of the presidents whose colleges are in states where the right to abortion remains intact expressed concern with how the ruling could impact out-of-state students. President Biden recently signed two executive orders addressing abortion access, one of which will permit states to use Medicaid funds to help women travel to other states for an abortion; however, many questions still remain on where students are protected and where they are not, and as state laws around reproductive rights continue to change, these questions are unable to be answered at the current moment.
“In Oregon there may be relative safety but college students are vulnerable to having their rights undermined simply by leaving the state to return to their hometowns to engage in internships, or conduct research elsewhere in the United States,” said Bilger of Reed.
Other legal issues that were raised were the question of what qualifies as helping and abetting as far as university staff helping students gain access to abortion in states where it is now illegal, and student privacy rights.
“We are very worried about the existing legal protections for our out-of-state patients and especially for our out-of-state students who use our student health facilities because the privacy protections around those student health facilities are different than the privacy protections that you see in other clinical settings,” said Gillman.
The presidents were especially concerned with how the Dobbs ruling could impact medical school offerings.
“The entire public health ecosystem of the country in training people, the next generation of medical practitioners, in family planning and obstetrics and gynecology is going to be severely disrupted,” said Gillman.
The presidents expressed concern that a student might complete medical school in a state that has protected access to abortion and be placed in a residency program in a state where abortion is illegal. Colleges also might have students transferring in from states that have banned certain abortion practices in light of Dobbs.
Gillman said that the medical centers at UC Irvine are expecting a “huge” increase in patients traveling from out of state to seek abortion care.
Others also noted the disproportionate impact the Dobbs ruling will have on women, particularly low-income women and women of color.
Frederick of Howard University, an HBCU with a student population that is 74 percent women, said, “One of the things we are concerned about at Howard is that we actually send more African Americans to medical school than anyone in the country. This training becomes more complicated.”
Cordano of Gallaudet University, a college for deaf and hard of hearing students, mentioned how the Dobbs ruling could disproportionately impact disabled students, who experience sexual assault at a rate that is one and a half times higher than other women.
The university leaders echoed a similar concern: the intersection between the Dobbs ruling and its potential impacts on the pre-existing mental health crisis on college campuses.
“I think we have all made the connection between the broad mental health crisis and the particular vulnerability of women,” Mitchell said after the meeting. “This adds to the precariousness of women’s circumstances on college campuses.”