Battle lines drawn in Texas affirmative action case
A Supreme Court case involving the University of Texas at Austin will examine affirmative action for the first time in nearly a decade.
By EMILY DERUY
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear its first affirmative action case in nearly a decade, the Obama administration and other states are taking sides.
A coalition headed by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman (D) has become the latest in a line that also includes the Obama administration and the American Council on Education to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions process.
The university’s admissions system considers the race and ethnicity of applicants, a controversial move that prompted a student to file a lawsuit when the school rejected her application.
According to Texas’ “Top Ten Percent Law,” students graduating in the top 10 percent of their Texas high school classes are automatically admitted to in-state public colleges and universities. This has filled about 70 percent of the entering class, according to the New York attorney general’s office, leaving the remaining 30 percent to be filled through an individualized admissions process that considers race and ethnicity among other factors.
Both a trial court and an appellate court ruled in favor of the university, and the Supreme Court is set to rule on affirmative action in higher education for the first time in nearly 10 years when it takes on the case this fall. Arguments will begin on October 10.
Abigail Fisher, a white student who was not admitted to the school in 2008, filed a lawsuit claiming the admissions policy violated her civil and constitutional rights. Her grades did not put her in the top 10 percent of her graduating class.
Fisher’s case is buttress by briefs from the libertarian Cato Institute, the conservative group Judicial Watch, and GOP Rep. Allen West (Fla.), among others.
Critics of the university’s admissions process have said it disadvantages students in high-performing schools who may technically rank lower, but be as qualified as other high-ranking students in lower-performing schools.
They say the ”Top Ten Percent Law” already offers the educational benefits of diversity called for by supporters of the university, and that using race as a factor in remaining admissions decisions is unfair.
While the law is technically race-neutral, it is aimed at increasing diversity because the top of each high school class, including low-performing schools in poorer, racially diverse neighborhoods, is admitted.
The school says it considers race along with academic records, personal essays, leadership potential, extracurricular activities, and honors and awards as factors in admitting the remainder of the incoming class.
Attorney General Schneiderman and the coalition say that looking at class rank alone does not do enough to ensure the educational benefits of diversity, and that the law shouldn’t preclude a university from also considering race and ethnicity in its admissions process.
“To protect the academic freedom of public institutions of higher learning and to allow them to achieve the full educational benefits of diversity, the Court should stand its ground against efforts to roll back these precedents,” Schneiderman said in a statement.
They write in the brief that class rank-admissions policies will typically promote racial and ethnic diversity only if the state’s high schools are substantially segregated by race, and if racial and ethnic minorities with high class rank decide to accept places offered by public Texas universities and colleges.
The brief also offers some criticism of the class-rank admissions system, noting that some universities are forced to admit some less-qualified applicants using the class rank system and that it prevents schools from ensuring that minorities are distributed across various programs of study.
The current Supreme Court is regarded as more conservative than the court that ruled in favor of racial considerations in 2003, and may limit the consideration of race in the admissions process.
The other states in the coalition are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
(Photo: Flickr/Paul Lowry)