Commentary

Racial diversity survives and thrives: The Supreme Court rules in United States v. Fisher

Supreme courtLast month, the United States Supreme Court upheld the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions policy as constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause in Fisher v. University of Texas. The decision is a big win for proponents of admissions policies that foster racial and ethnic diversity in the university setting.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy, held that “considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.” The Court determined that the race aspect of UT’s policy was really only “a factor of a factor of a factor” within UT’s extensive holistic approach to evaluating applicants. The court further ruled that the university’s objective of providing an academic environment that offers a “robust exchange of ideas, exposure to differing cultures, preparation for the challenges of an increasingly diverse work-force, and acquisition of competencies required of future leaders” is a compelling interest. As highlighted in the amicus brief filed in Fisher on behalf of 823 social scientists from 237 educational institutions and research centers across 44 different states, research shows that, compared to race-neutral policies, UT’s holistic admissions process better leverages the educational benefits of diversity, such as reducing isolation and stigmatization of admitted students and improving race relations by allowing for better cross-campus racial integration.

The decision provides somewhat of a legal framework for universities seeking to create a diverse education environment, but the court did note that the UT policy was unique compared to policies it has previously considered. For 75% of its admissions, UT uses a “Top Ten Percent” policy that does not take race into consideration at all—any student who graduates in the top ten percent of their high school class is guaranteed a spot at UT. The other 25% of applicants are evaluated through a “full-file” review, where race, as the court put it, is a “factor of a factor of a factor” within the holistic evaluation.

To what degree other universities’ policies need to mirror UT’s to be constitutionally permissible is a question still to be decided. However, the court did opine that “public universities . . . can serve as laboratories for experimentation” when attempting to strike the “sensitive balance” between the pursuit of diversity and equal treatment in the nation’s education system. Such language indicates that future challenges to admissions policies will likely be fact-intensive reviews of the policies and their effects on promoting diversity, but it also indicates that universities are afforded some lee-way in how they approach fostering racial diversity in the university setting.

Either way, the Court reaffirmed that race-conscious policies can strike an appropriate balance. Going forward, the decision will likely have a significant influence on the recent lawsuits brought against Harvard and the University of North Carolina regarding those schools’ admissions policies. The proceedings in those lawsuits were placed on hold until Fisher was decided. To what extent Fisher will influence those specific legal challenges remains to be seen. However, these cases may be the next round of litigation to reach the Supreme Court and provide further guidance to universities seeking to create a diverse education environment.

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