Q&A with Dr. Liliana Garces: Exploring How Legal and Education Systems Shape Students’ Futures

“Educator Voices Across Texas” is a series that explores the educator’s experience across the Lone Star State. Each story shines a light on the people and voices behind the success of our children, schools and communities.

Liliana Garces

For the past 17 years, Dr. Liliana Garces has helped translate social science research for courts across the U.S. as counsel on amicus curiae, or friend-of-the-court, briefs. Advocating for individuals or organizations who aren’t parties in the litigation, these filings provide critical data and perspectives to inform legal deliberations.

Currently a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy, Dr. Garces is inspired by her unique professional path from lawyer to social scientist to examine how the legal and education systems interact with each other—ultimately shaping the way education policies and practices affect social inequities.

We spoke with Dr. Garces to hear more about her journey to the U.S., nuances around affirmative action policy and what’s coming up next in her field of research.

You described yourself as a recovering lawyer turned social scientist, which is certainly a more unusual journey. Tell us how you got from here to there and what drove you to carving this new path for yourself?

I started from very humble beginnings. Growing up in a small farm in a remote area of Colombia, I immigrated to the U.S. with my mom when I was about 11 years old. We were poor and made the dangerous journey without documents, all in search of educational opportunities.

Along the way, I had a lot of lucky breaks and caring educators who supported my educational aspirations: my middle school secured a tutor to help me learn English; becoming a lawful permanent resident just as I was applying to college; and my high school peers and guidance counselor who helped me navigate the college application process. Without any of those pieces in place (and many others), it would have been a very different journey for me.

After graduating from college, I went to law school to become a public interest lawyer. I viewed the legal system as an integral part of a healthy democracy and I wanted to contribute to it by representing those who could not represent themselves. Just a few years into my legal career, I was defending the constitutional rights of other immigrants before the U.S. Supreme Court as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation.

You can say my personal journey represents the very best of what our education system has to offer: to open opportunity and give someone with my background—an immigrant, low-income, first-generation college student—the opportunity to realize their highest aspirations.

But the reality is that that’s not how our education system operates. All too often, it closes doors of opportunity and entrenches racial and ethnic inequities. So after reaching what you might consider the pinnacle of my law career, I decided to work in education to help disrupt that cycle.

Right now in your research, what specific issue are you determined to understand more deeply? What have you learned doing this work the past few years?

Fundamentally, I’m interested in generating knowledge that helps sustain a healthy democracy in the U.S. In our racially/ethnically diverse democracy, individuals with diverse racial and ethnic experiences should be creating the laws and policies that affect all of us. Yet, we know that most individuals in positions of power and influence in the U.S. are predominantly White.

A large part of my work focuses on policies like affirmative action, which provide access to selective institutions of higher education for historically marginalized communities. These are institutions that provide pathways to positions of power and influence in the U.S., but where students of color remain severely underrepresented.

What I’ve learned from my work is that race-conscious policies in postsecondary admissions have helped expand opportunities for students of color—and when institutions aren’t able to consider race as a factor in admissions, their student bodies become less racially and ethnically diverse and institutions of higher education cannot realize their educational mission to provide a high-quality education for all their students.

Racially and ethnically diverse student bodies help build critical thinking skills, prepare future leaders to be in a multiracial and multiethnic society, and break down racial stereotypes that students may hold from prior life experiences where they may not have been exposed to students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. These are critical educational goals that help sustain a healthy democracy and that as a teacher I try to promote in the classroom.

Recently, you served as counsel and co-authored an amicus brief filed by 1,241 social scientists in support of Harvard’s defense of race-conscious admissions policies.  Tell us about your experience throughout the process and the impact of this work since it was first filed.

For the last 17 years, I’ve had the privilege of using my experience in law to help translate social science research to legal audiences so that legal opinions can be informed by expert evidence.

Amicus curiae, or friend-of-the-court briefs, are filed by individuals or organizations who are not the main parties in the case, but who have an interest in the outcome. As counsel or counsel of record in several of these, I’ve helped lead opportunities for the social science community to educate the justices about how the research evidence supports a particular outcome or party in the case.

Most recently on the subject of race-conscious policies, there’s a robust body of research that supports Harvard’s limited consideration of race as a factor in admissions. Over the past few years, a team of education experts across the country and I worked with legal counsel to submit briefs on behalf of the social science community. Providing relevant data and perspectives helped inform the legal deliberations at all stages of the case from being referenced in the court of appeals’ decision all the way to the oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court.

What’s the one thing that most people don’t realize about your work and how it affects higher education on a tangible level?

At the end of the day, what the courts decide on topics like affirmative action has a lasting influence on our ability to connect and understand one another across racial and ethnic differences—which we desperately need during this time of entrenched division.

It’s also important to understand that the debates around affirmative action policy represent the American debate over race. The conversations are about how we, as a society, address the ongoing consequences of a history of racial oppression and manifestations of racism and racial inequality. Research consistently shows that not being able to consider race is one of many factors in admissions that exacerbates racial inequities. It also indicates that effectively addressing racial discrimination requires understanding how race affects educational opportunities and life experiences.

Oftentimes, the policy is viewed as providing a “preference” to certain groups. But considering race alongside the other factors in an application is part of making sure all students are provided an opportunity to be treated fairly. In a society where race and ethnic background continues to shape educational opportunities, it can be a critical part of a student’s identity and life experiences. Saying that an admissions officer cannot consider that part of a student’s experience is asking them to discriminate against students of color. We all want a fair process and that’s what race-conscious policies allow.

Looking ahead, what are you excited to see developing when it comes to your field of research?

In the coming months, I will be looking closely for what the U.S. Supreme Court decides in the current affirmative action cases. Should the Court further restrict postsecondary institution’s ability to consider race as one of many factors in admissions, our field will need to rise to the challenge to implement transformative policies and practices that maintain the doors of opportunity open to all regardless of race—allowing colleges and universities to attain their educational missions.