Interviews & Profiles

How does a New York Bar task force recommend colleges respond to the Supreme Court's affirmative action ruling?

Kapil Longani has left the New York City mayor's office and come to SUNY as senior vice chancellor for legal affairs and general counsel where he's taking on challenging legal questions about equity.

Kapil Longani worked for the New York City mayor and now has a top role at SUNY.

Kapil Longani worked for the New York City mayor and now has a top role at SUNY. NYC Mayor’s Office

Kapil Longani’s commitment to equity has taken him to a variety of public service offices, from serving under the late Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, to working on federal investigations like the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, to being chief counsel in the New York City mayor’s office during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, having shifted gears to higher education, he’s tackling challenging legal questions about affirmative action, free speech, admissions practices that still support diversity and more as senior vice chancellor for legal affairs and general counsel for the State University of New York.

City & State spoke with Longani about moving from the mayor’s office to the sprawling 64-campus system, his relationship with SUNY Chancellor John King, his work in wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action, and bolstering equity in higher education. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a bit about your career path, in particular why you decided to go work in higher education at SUNY after working in the mayor’s office. It seems like a dramatic shift.

I come from a family of public servants and immigrants who really focused on the power of education to change our lives. My grandparents who raised me in my first few years of life really drilled into us that education, and in particular public education, was the ultimate equalizer. Education is what opened the doors of opportunity for all of us. My grandmother and mother spent their professional careers focusing on using education to level the playing field for their students. My grandmother lived in India and she went to college at a time when very few women in India went to school – particularly higher ed. She was sort of the one who I looked to who sort of inspired me from the very beginning in terms of why education was so important. My mother followed suit, and she’s been a principal for 30 years. That theme of equality, and ensuring that there is a level playing field has been a thread throughout my career.

I first worked in South Africa when I graduated law school where I worked on the post-apartheid constitution. I had the great honor of working with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and some of the great freedom fighters of that generation as they fought through the fundamental question of how do you even the scales in a society where people of color were not allowed equal opportunities for generations. One of those solutions was the right to education. From there, I went to work for the late great Elijah Cummings who taught me that inequality was not limited to places like South Africa – that even in our country, there are gross inequalities. I went to serve as chief counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio who’d made remedying inequality in New York City one of his major pillars while he ran for office. While I was there, I had the opportunity to work with people like Jennifer Jones Austin, who chaired the Racial Justice Commission, and Henry Garrido – again, people that  have devoted their lives to remedying inequities within the city.

SUNY merged my passion for education and public service in using the power of education to level the playing field for citizens of New York state. The mission at SUNY, which is about providing access to education to all people in New York, aligns with my core values. That’s why it made so much sense. SUNY is the largest driver of economic mobility in the state. For every dollar the state invests, we get $9 in return. We have close to 400,000 students that come from different cultures, different races all over the state – from every background imaginable. There are very few jobs, if any, in the legal sphere, where you get to deal with the cornucopia of issues that we get to deal with every day. Our sole goal here, pursuant to the chancellor, is to make life better for our students, faculty and staff. That’s what we spend our days doing.

What’s it like working with Chancellor John King?

I’ve been really lucky to work for truly historic figures and Chancellor King is no exception. He is a historic figure in every sense of the word. He is an inspiration. He has a very authentic commitment to equity and inclusion – really into leveling the playing field. When he talks, I often feel like I’m back at my table in India with my grandmother talking. He has this authentic, true commitment to public education that I think very few people I’ve seen in this world do. He gives his staff the freedom to fly. He trusts his senior staff, he surrounds himself with truly exceptional minds, but even better people. That makes for such a healthy, creative, innovative environment. It gives us the freedom to think about issues in a way that very few people think of, because he encourages us to be multifaceted problem-solvers and innovators.

I’m just a very small cog in this extraordinary machine that the chancellor has built. I remember the first time I met him, it was so clear the confidence he had in his team to tackle and lead on the most challenging issues that SUNY was going to face. The first day on my job, he said, “Kapil, we’re going to figure out and you’re going to lead on our response to the Supreme Court’s decision that’s coming down. It is going to define how we deal with diversity, equity and inclusion.” When a leader tells you that, it inspires you and fulfills you in ways that are hard to describe. This state is very lucky to have a man like John King lead.

You helped write the higher education section of the advancing diversity report in wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling on affirmative action. The report, which came out in September, was a big deal. It was put together very quickly and it gave clarity during a time of great unknown. Tell us a little bit about your role on the task force. Why were you compelled to join?

We were drafting and putting things together in extremely short periods of time, but what was great, from my perspective, was that so much of what we were addressing, we had been talking about at SUNY for months. The chancellor and I had many discussions about these issues – about the impact of race on an individual applicant, life experiences, how that would tie into our decision and admissions, ensuring that our values, perspective and mission aligned on our campuses. Also the continued use of race-neutral criteria like geography, employment, first-generation status – all of that stuff, which the committee addressed. We had talked about all of this in great length and it was really fascinating to get the views of these truly esteemed panelists who are leading these law schools and thinking through how this decision is affecting their applicant pool and what guidance we can provide.

We knew that this report was going to be seen, not as a New York state production, but as something that was going to have national ramifications. I saw that when I was asked to represent the Higher Ed Committee in our press conference when we released the report. There was a real sense of pride amongst the people that were involved, and in particular, the chairs of the committee, in terms of how quickly we were able to get it done. Also, it wasn’t just about how quickly we were able to produce the document, it was really important that it was rife with real, solid recommendations that people can operationalize and think through in college admissions. Things like the elimination of standardized testing, for example, amongst all of these other things that we just talked about, including but not limited to the use of race-neutral criteria.

We discussed why academic institutions should establish clear goals and values. We talked about mission; we talked about outlining permissible admissions practices in the aftermath of (the Students for Fair Admissions ruling), potential steps for eliminating policy barriers, and how implementing a broad educational institutional strategy can help foster inclusive learning environments across the board. Those were the sections that we really focused on, but I also thought it was interesting the diversity of life experiences that we had on the committee.

There will likely be a number of future legal rulings that are also going to have big ramifications on how race should be considered when colleges admit students. What comes next for the task force in wake of the report’s release?

I don’t know. I suspect the State Bar (Association) is going to play a significant role, again, in light of the success of this report. I have to think that there will be additional guidance coming from the Bar in the aftermath of this as the Supreme Court continues to act and as the law continues to evolve, but frankly, we don’t know.