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What’s the Big Deal? Fisher v. University of Texas

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April 09, 2013 06:23 pm

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The following blog posts comes from Ashley Cheung, a policy intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education. Ms. Cheung is a graduate student in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at the George Washington University. 

My interest in the relationship between education and law was sparked by one of my graduate courses that took a deep dive into the world of Supreme Court cases starting with Brown v. Board. The timing of this course couldn’t have been better- the oral arguments of the Fisher v. University of Texas case were being heard, and I have been glued on this topic ever since. I want to take this opportunity to introduce what the case is about, and ask you how you feel about court cases that take into account race as a factor in admissions. Think about it.

Case details

In the next two months, the Supreme Court Justices will announce their decision whether to uphold or strike down UT Austin’s race conscious admission policy. The oral arguments in October 2012 surrounded UT Austin’s decision to allow the use of race as a component in their general admissions policies for a more holistic approach. Instead of looking primarily at the Academic Index (AI) which reviews standardized test scores, and class ranking, UT Austin’s holistic approach also takes into account Personal Achievement Index (PAI) which reflects the strength of the applicant’s essays, extracurricular activities, honors, awards and includes socioeconomic status, race and other components. Roughly 25% of the student body is admitted under general admissions, while around 75% of the students are admitted under the Ten Percent Plan, which automatically admits the top ten percent of Texas high school seniors.

The ruling on this case will determine whether or not previous rulings on race policies cases are upheld. This includes a recent ruling of Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003. In the Grutter case, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race conscious admissions as a compelling interest to promote class diversity. The case also introduced social science data that supported the notion that an increased racially diverse campus positively benefits students academically and socially. But the question is how does a university craft an admissions policy to achieve diversity without violating the rights of others? Depending on how the Fisher case is decided, the ruling of the Grutter case could be dismissed. It could also establish new rules on how universities are able to craft their admissions policies to promote diversity, fairness, and equality.

Fisher’s Argument
In 2008, Abigail Fisher was denied admission to UT Austin under the general admissions. Fisher’s academic record did not qualify her for the Ten Percent Plan. She along with another applicant (who later dropped this case) filed suit claiming that the application process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment by including the consideration of race. She argues that the policies at UT Austin go further than the Grutter decision allows; since UT Austin already has the Top Ten Percent plan in place, the university has already promoted a diverse student body without taking race into consideration.

UT Austin’s Argument

UT Austin argues that the admission policy meets the strict standards laid out by Grutter v. Bollinger. The decision was affirmed by the Fifth Circuit panel, and the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit decided not to rehear the lawsuit, leaving the decision to support UT Austin’s policy in place.  The university argues that the admission policy is narrowly tailored, constitutional and necessary to ensure a diverse student body. UT Austin also argues that the Ten Percent Plan may have increased a diverse student body, but has not hit a critical mass. The student population is no where close to being a demographic representation of the state population. UT Austin argues that there are still underrepresented populations at UT Austin, and the university should have the power to design policies to address their issues.  UT Austin also argues that Fisher’s application was not strong enough for admission even without the consideration of race. Fisher went on to graduate from another university, so Fisher lacked standing, (the ability to prove injury caused by not being admitted to UT Austin).

What Does This All Mean?
There are several issues to think about. The ruling of the Fisher v. University of Texas case will limit or support the multiple ways an admission policy attempts to achieve a beneficial, diverse academic climate. This debate brings up a larger discussion; can race ever be used in this context without infringing on the Equal Protection Clause, even if it is for a benefit to the university and the greater community?

In the education world, race is spoken about often, not only in gaps between groups, but also the benefit of a diverse educational community; can a university create a race neutral admission policy that produces a diverse learning environment?  Socioeconomic status is often used as a proxy, but what do you think?  Can we produce the same benefits of diversity without using the term race?

Ashley Cheung is a policy intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education. Ms. Cheung is a graduate student in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at the George Washington University. 

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