The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin that universities should retain the ability to build diverse student bodies made up of applicants from different backgrounds who meet their high standards.
The University of Texas – as well as other universities – consider race as a modest factor, among many aspects of a student’s background. This policy does not sit well with one justice, Antonin Scalia. Scalia said African-American students would benefit from being at a “slower-track school,” an opinion that drew the ire of many, including Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid.
“The idea that African-American students are somehow inherently intellectually inferior from other students is despicable,” said Reid.
Several current University of Texas students are hoping the Supreme Court rules in favor of the university.
“We are making progress, but we have a long way to go. The Top Ten Percent Plan is not enough. I have white, Asian, Latino and Black friends at school who understand that it’s important to have diversity on campus,” said University of Texas (UT) senior David McDonald from outside the Supreme Court. McDonald grew up in a single-parent household and is a first-generation college student. He’s the past president and current advisor to UT Black Student Alliance, for whom NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund submitted an amicus brief.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund stated, “Conservative activist Ed Blum, who is behind this suit and similar ones, never questions the right of colleges to consider anything other than race – like hobbies, gender, age or hometown. To say to a student that everything about you is relevant except for your race, strips away a part of that student’s identity. It is racial closeting. We need to embrace what makes us different and work to understand each other better. Bringing people together with different backgrounds helps break down racial stereotypes and benefits all people.”
Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that just three years ago seven justices of the Court upheld long-standing constitutional precedents about the value and parameters the permissible use of race as a limited factor in admissions. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg specifically questioned the petitioner’s standing based on Fisher’s limited demand for refund of her original application fee as damages in the case. In addition, Fisher was disqualified from admission due to her academic credentials (based on SAT and class ranking) and would not have been admitted to the University of Texas even in the absence of its affirmative action plan. Nothing in the several areas of her personal background and essays would have changed the outcome, according to the University.
“The University of Texas at Austin convincingly explained to the justices how it carefully followed the Court’s guidelines when developing an admissions approach that considered race as a limited factor,” added Rachel Kleinman, a senior attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Diverse learning environments enrich the college experience and better prepare students for success in the workplace and in the military. College opens doors to a lifetime of opportunity that should be in the reach of all children.”
The Supreme Court received an avalanche of briefs supporting the University’s efforts to create a diverse student body from 45 leading corporations such as American Express, Microsoft, Sprint, Starbucks and Xerox; 36 high-ranking retired military and defense officials (including three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Gen. Colin Powell, Adm. Michael Mullen and Gen. Henry Shelton); more than 160 Asian-American and Pacific Islander organizations; social scientists; major religious denominations; 19 states; student organizations and more than 100 institutions of higher education.