Today I’m pleased to share this space with a guest writer as she highlights a pending decision that may profoundly affect law school admissions around the country. The case is Fisher v. University of Texas, and Rachel Higgins walks through the main points. Ms. Higgins writes a lot about education; go here to find institutions offering online teaching degrees on her primary website.
When Abigail Fisher filed a lawsuit against the University of Texas on the grounds that she was denied admission because she is white, she triggered the first affirmative action case handled by the U.S. Supreme Court in nearly a decade. Now, the future of racial quotas imposed by American higher learning institutions rests on the Court’s final decision.
Fisher was denied entrance to UT in 2008. In her brief, Fisher accused the school of sacrificing a productive learning environment for the attainment of “purely representational” demographic quotas. Her attorneys also stated that schools that strive for on-campus diversity by way of affirmative action have produced “negligible” results for U.S. colleges and universities.
Enrollment at the University of Texas is still predominantly white, as just over 51 percent of students, a narrow majority, self-identified as white only. The next-largest racial group, Hispanics, made up just 17 percent of total enrollment, and Asian American students followed closely behind at 15 percent of the student body. Just over 4 percent of the student body self-identifies as black, and more than 8 percent of the student body is foreign. This racial breakdown is not representative of the population at large, leading many to believe that there is much more work to be done in diversifying the student body.
However, the university defended its decision as entirely in keeping with Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case in which the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s equal opportunity policy after Barbara Grutter, a white applicant with high GPA and LSAT scores, was denied admission to the program. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor authored the Court’s narrow 5–4 decision, adding that all American colleges and universities should strive to develop a more “race-neutral admissions formula” over the coming 25-year period. The Court ruled that race could be used to admit applicants as long as this criteria was “narrowly tailored” to meet the “critical mass” of minority students necessary to boost on-campus diversity to optimal levels.
Since Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice O’Connor has retired and been replaced by the more conservative Justice Samuel Alito. This shake-up, some experts predict, could lead to a reversal of the 2003 decision, despite the remaining 16 years recommended by Justice O’Connor. However, the recusal of Justice Elena Kagan from Fisher v. University of Texas on the grounds that she worked on the case as Solicitor General has also opened up the possibility of a 4–4 split; if that occurred, the case would be deferred to an earlier ruling by the lower court that sided with UT.
In recent months, other colleges and universities have come to UT’s defense. In August, 14 higher learning institutions (led by MIT and including several Ivy League schools) filed an amicus curiae brief in support of college-level affirmative action policies. “Although all Amici have highly selective admissions criteria designed to ensure that all of their students (including minority students) will be prepared for demanding coursework and will graduate successfully,” the brief stated, “they all recognized long ago that admissions by purely numerical factors such as grade-point averages and standardized test scores would not effectively accomplish their broader educational missions.” In all, 90 amicus curiae briefs have been filed in the case—17 defending Fisher, and 73 defending UT.
The Supreme Court heard the case’s first oral arguments in mid-October—and, as expected, the justices appeared strongly divided. Though a decision date has yet to be determined, Fisher v. University of Texas could greatly affect the use of race as college admissions criteria.Follow @azatty