WTS International | June 2023 SCOTUS Decisions

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States of America (SCOTUS) ruled on multiple cases, including student debt relief, LGBTQIA+ rights, and Affirmative Action in institutions of higher learning.  

With impeccable timing, SCOTUS rulings were handed down mere hours before comments were due to the United States Department of Transportation regarding updates to their Equity Action Plan.  

Affirmative Action

Last week, the WTS Foundation hosted our 2023 Capital Summit at the University of Maryland. The Summit welcomed students and WTS member mentors from 16 WTS chapters around the country to the D.C area for a week of learning about our industry and developing leadership skills. Throughout the week, our diverse group of students heard from female leaders in varying modes of transportation. From employees of the Baltimore Washington International Airport, Amtrak, Federal Highway Administration’s Turner-Fairbank Research Center, and the Port of Baltimore, students heard a common refrain: they could be anything and do anything. At the end of the week, minutes after the last student checked out of the program, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled on Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. University of North Carolina, ending the Affirmative Action program in higher education. 

Without a diversity of thought in the next generation of engineers, planners, and others — future leaders like our Summit student attendees — we run the risk of moving backwards in our industry.  WTS International and the WTS Foundation believes this decision jeopardizes generations of progress and will have a monumental impact on the equitable advancement of a diverse workforce, especially for women of color. Our Foundation strives to offer financial support in the way of scholarship money to a growing and diverse group of applicants, but we cannot be impactful if students cannot get into universities in the first place. The implications of the end of Affirmative Action are potentially devastating for the future of the transportation workforce and equitable, accessible transportation systems. 

Student Loan Debt Forgiveness 

Additionally, SCOTUS struck down the Biden administration’s student debt forgiveness program in Biden v. Nebraska. A common refrain in the transportation sector is workforce development, with all modes experiencing a devastating shortage of qualified workers to keep our systems maintained, operational, and technically advanced.  

In an effort to build an educated, diverse body from which to recruit; student debt looms like a dark cloud over our entire sector.  Base salaries will need to increase dramatically, and generational wealth building, a pillar of the USDOT Equity Action Plan, will be near impossible.  Despite over $700,000 in scholarships from the WTS Foundation annually, our individual scholarships from the WTS Foundation and chapters ranging from $500-$15,000 aren’t enough to cover the rising costs of higher education.   

We remain committed to expanding our scholarship program, supporting as many students as possible as they enter the industry. We continue to promote and support paid internships through our corporate partners to provide a debt-free path to an education. However, we also see first-hand the growing concerns of our future leaders on the cost of education, and the impact of hefty student loans with high-interest rates on their future plans.  These decisions directly impact young women that already face prejudice and discrimination in unequal pay, experiencing more microaggressions, and slower advancement rates.  

LGBTQIA+ Discrimination

SCOTUS also provided a decision on 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, stating that the First Amendment bars a Colorado-based website designer to “create expressive designs speaking messages with which the designer disagrees.”    
The implications of this decision will drastically affect LGBTQIA+ rights in this country. Without some semblance of anti-discrimination protections, women-owned businesses and other Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) now face additional hurdles in maintaining and growing their businesses. The ramifications of this decision will be vast, and we anticipate more programs that focus on equity and diversity will be challenged.  

We know our members may be frustrated, hurt, and potentially feel that through these decisions they are not welcome to fully participate in our country’s systems and services.  We share in your frustration, in your pain, and in your loneliness, as these decisions individually and together impact so many of us personally. At WTS International and the WTS Foundation, we believe that women are capable and prepared to lead the fight for a more equitable world.   

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (1892-1954) wrote in a 1953 opinion, “(The Supreme Court) is not final because we are (supreme), but we are (supreme) only because we are final.”  We understand this moment may seem like an end, but our resolve and our commitment to equity and access is more important than ever. We continue to stand for equality, civil liberties, and human rights on behalf of our membership. We encourage our members and our chapters, in alignment with our leadership, to hold difficult conversations, to support each other — no matter political preferences, and to provide grace and understanding to friends, colleagues, and neighbors.   

We may not all be okay right now, and it will be through understanding, education, and sharing of perspectives that we can continue to advocate for ourselves, for all women, and for all underrepresented populations. As we have seen; tides do turn, decisions do get overturned, and change is possible. Our fight is not over.  

In support and understanding,  

Jannet Walker-Ford  
Chair, WTS International Board of Directors 

Karen Good  
Chair, WTS Foundation Board of Directors 

Sara Stickler  
President and CEO, WTS International