With the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court may clarify — as early as today — the legal status of affirmative action in university admissions. Abigail Fisher, who was denied entrance to the University of Texas (UT), accuses the school of illegally discriminating against her on the basis of race (she is white). She did not qualify for automatic entry to UT under the state law that guarantees admission to graduating seniors in the top ten percent of their high-school class. While most UT students are admitted under this “Top Ten Percent Plan,” the school holistically reviews the remaining applications using an array of criteria, including leadership qualities, community service, and race. This aspect of the admissions process enables it to assemble a student body with students from many different walks of life, including from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The legality of race-conscious admissions policies to achieve educational diversity was affirmed by the Supreme Court in the last major case upholding the constitutionality of affirmative action, Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), with the majority opinion emphasizing that “student body diversity” is a compelling state interest. A decade later, a court with a different ideological divide appears likely to roll back this principle, in spite of continued severe disparities in education:
- Whites are at least twice as likely to enroll in college (36%) as Blacks (18%), Latinos (12%), and American-Indians (10%).
- Nearly 65% of black adults and 80% of Latino adults fail to complete some form of post-secondary education, according to recent Census estimates. In contrast, 50% of the white population has at least an Associate’s degree or a Bachelor’s degree.
- After residents of California abolished affirmative action in university admissions, the number of Black and Hispanic first-year students at the University of California-Berkeley declined by 52% in just the first year (1997). The overall minority declines in minority enrollment were the steepest at the flagship campuses of Berkeley and Los Angeles, which have also been among the slowest to recover their shares of underrepresented minority students. This statistic offers a glimpse into how campus diversity may be impacted by an adverse court decision.
The importance of diversity in higher education is not a view held just by a small contingent of university administrators and minority students. Our country’s most important business leaders, military leaders, and public servants also recognize the value of interaction between students from a variety of racial/ethnic backgrounds, as well as the problem that wide disparities in educational attainment represents. Prior to oral argument in the Fisher case, the Supreme Court received a deluge of 73 amici (“friend of the court”) briefs supporting diversity as a legitimate rationale for preserving UT’s admissions policy. These briefs express the collective opinion that while significant gains have been made in achieving educational parity, the conscious pursuit of diversity in our educational institutions continues to be necessary in order to train citizens who will operate in a country and global economy that are increasingly diverse. Prominent supporters of UT’s affirmative action policy included:
- 37 of the highest-ranking retired U.S. military/defense officials (including two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — General Colin L. Powell and Admiral Michael G. Mullen)
- 57 Fortune 500 companies (and other leading businesses, including Dell, Microsoft, IBM, Cisco Systems, American Express, General Electric, Pfizer, Halliburton, Xerox, Procter & Gamble, Sprint Nextel, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Intel, DuPont, Viacom, Shell Oil, and Wal-Mart)
- Organizations representing all racial/ethnic minorities (including 93 API organizations and 23 National Latino organizations)
- 16 major religious denominations and organizations
A ruling against the University of Texas will diminish the educational opportunities that all UT students receive from a diverse environment where they can each learn from the experiences of their classmates. Each college student, irrespective of race, will be likely to have an educational experience that is less powerful and less enlightening.