Written by Julie Ajinkya, Center for American Progress
On Tuesday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case, Fisher v. The University of Texas, which may challenge the future of race-conscious admissions at our country’s colleges and universities. If the Court bars the use of race in admissions decisions, it threatens years of hard work by civil rights activists in the higher education field who fought to make college campuses more integrated, diverse, and just.
The case being considered by the Court was filed by a young white woman named Abigail Fisher of Texas. Fisher failed to rank in the top 10 percent of her graduating high school class, which would have automatically earned her admission into the state’s public university system. As a result, she was placed in a separate pool of applicants who could be admitted through a complicated admissions process that allows race to be considered as a factor in admissions. When Fisher failed to be admitted to the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s flagship university, she concluded that she was rejected based on her race and sued the university in 2008.
Conservatives hope that this case will overturn the Court’s 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger ruling that allowed schools to use race as one of the factors in achieving racial diversity in their institutions. The Fisher case claims that the current admissions policy in Texas, which was explicitly formed after the 2003 ruling, is an unconstitutional form of “blatant racial balancing.” But such an interpretation of the role of race in admissions reveals a gross misunderstanding of the 2003 Supreme Court ruling and the role of diversity in higher education.
Grutter v. Bollinger
Grutter v. Bollinger was similarly filed by a white female Michigan resident who believed she had been rejected from the University of Michigan Law School based on her race. Ultimately, the Supreme Court’s decision ruled that the U.S. Constitution “does not prohibit the Law School’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” The central question, then, is how the Court decided that diversity was a “compelling interest” in the context of higher education.
Justice Sandra O’Connor delivered the opinion of the Court and cited the substantial benefits that educational diversity is designed to produce. O’Connor specifically highlighted numerous studies that “show student body diversity promotes learning outcomes…better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals.”
Various sectors came forward as amici to make this argument. Major American businesses argued that today’s global marketplace requires skills that can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people. The U.S. military argued that a highly qualified and racially diverse officer corps is essential to the military’s ability to provide national security. And legislators came forward to argue that the path to leadership must be open to individuals of every race and ethnicity to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of our citizenry.
What the 2003 ruling did allow was the law school’s admissions program to continue considering race as one factor among many, a point that is sadly lost on Fisher and the conservatives pushing for the ruling to be overturned during the Supreme Court’s fall docket. What the ruling did not allow was for race to be the defining feature in a student’s application, or to operate under a quota system that would impose a fixed number of admission slots that are reserved exclusively for certain racial or ethnic groups. Moreover, the ruling did not require schools to consider race, but it allowed them to—an important distinction that means schools that implement such admissions policies clearly agree that diversity is enough of a compelling interest to pursue in their classrooms.
A political moment
So why do Fisher and the opponents of affirmative action think the Court would rule differently this time around?
Photo from afagen via flickr
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