For NJCU’s Acebo, success story born of opportunity, affirmative action college ruling hits home

N.J. college leaders vow to fight back against U.S. Supreme Court ruling that race cannot be factor in admissions

It’s easy to see Andrés Acebo of New Jersey City University as the youngest university president in the state.

Or as a former partner at the big-time law firm of DeCotiis, FitzPatrick, Cole & Giblin.

Or an Ivy League graduate who went to Brown University as an undergrad.

Acebo sees himself in another way: As someone whose story is very similar to the first-generation minority students he now leads at NJCU. As the son of man who came to the U.S. from Cuba on a raft — 60 years ago this summer.

As someone who others — very intentionally — took a chance on, helping to guide him to these noteworthy accomplishments.

“The truth of the matter, and this is maybe somewhat controversial in some circles, my story isn’t possible if there wasn’t an investment in me by my community — if there wasn’t an institution that cared about where my story began,” he said. “I’m immeasurably blessed because of that.”

View from the state

New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Brian Bridges issued the following statement:

“While the ruling will jeopardize the representation of underserved student populations on campuses nationwide, we are thankful New Jersey remains committed under Gov. (Phil) Murphy’s administration to promoting equity and inclusion and supporting the success of students from all backgrounds and life circumstances.

“We equally recognize that a state is made stronger by valuing diversity in all spaces and that diversity at institutions of higher education fosters vibrant academic and social interactions that lead to positive learning outcomes.”

That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday that struck down the ability of colleges to consider race as a factor in admissions hit home.

The ruling will not necessarily impact the admissions process at NJCU — the largest Hispanic-serving institution in the state — but it surely will hamper students who are so similar to him. Acebo wonders if they’ll have the same opportunities that he had.

“I’ve had the privilege and the blessings to be ‘the first’ to do a lot of things in my family, but no one does anything on their own,” he said. “Doors have been opened for me. I’ve been championed. I’ve had wind in my sail all because there was intention behind my elevation and the opportunities that I’ve been afforded.”

The decision seemingly overhauls a number of big decisions, starting with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

The court acknowledged that its prior rulings permitted race-based admissions, saying it did so only “within the confines of narrow restrictions.”

And, while many see the ruling as a stop to a process that supports members of minority groups even if they have a lesser application, the ruling ironically was based on a case involving Harvard University where a minority group (Asians) argued they were denied entry because of their race.

The decision was soundly questioned by numerous leaders in New Jersey, including Princeton University President Chris Eisgruber, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

Eisgruber, who has previously called the rise in the number of Pell Grant-eligible and first-generation students at the school the greatest success in his tenure, said Princeton will continue to work toward equity and inclusion.

“While today’s decision will make our work more difficult, we will work vigorously to preserve — and, indeed, grow — the diversity of our community while fully respecting the law as announced today,” he said.

Princeton has a strong history of doing as such.

According to the school, Princeton has increased the percentage of its student body that receives need-based federal Pell Grants from 6.2% in 2001 to 19.3% in the Class of 2024. And, among the students who were recently offered admission to Princeton’s Class of 2025, 22% were first-generation college students, an increase from 17% in 2024.

Eisgruber said the school’s fundamental commitment to diversity, equity & inclusion is shown in these three ideas:

  • Talent exists in every sector of American society, and we have an obligation to attract exceptional people of every background and enable them to flourish on our campus;
  • Diversity benefits learning and scholarship by broadening the range of questions, perspectives and experiences brought to bear on important topics throughout the university;
  • Our multicultural society requires that, in the words of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “the path to leadership (must) be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”

“For all these reasons and more, diversity is essential to the excellence of this university and to the future of our country and the world,” Eisgruber said. “Princeton will pursue it with energy, persistence and a determination to succeed despite the restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court in its regrettable decision today.”

New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Brian Bridges said Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration will do whatever it can to help minority students.

“As we work with the governor to promote equitable admissions within the constraints of this ruling, we want to assure our students most affected by this decision that our priorities for higher education will continue to focus on equity, access and affordability,” he said.

Acebo said he and NJCU are ready to do anything they can — no matter how difficult.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” he said. “And anything worthy of leadership has to be one of challenge.”

But, mostly, opportunity.

Acebo said the issue is as much about our history as a country as the admissions processes of universities.

“The inconvenient truth is that our nation is reckoning with its shortfalls, notwithstanding the tremendous historic progress we’ve made,” he said. “And that the ideal of being a more perfect union is only achievable if we stretch for it.

“I’m weary of any effort that tells us to stop stretching.”