Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. UT a victory for advocates of affirmative action

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The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, Monday, June 20, 2016, as the court announced several decisions.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/ Alex Brandon

For many, the Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision on Thursday in favor of UT-Austin in the Fisher v. University of Texas case is considered a victory.

The Supreme Court’s decision essentially affirms the “status quo” at UT-Austin and other universities across the country — meaning UT and other colleges can continue to use race as a consideration under the holistic review admissions process, a ruling consistent with other affirmative action cases in America’s history.

Historically, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of race-conscious admissions policies — a precedent which University officials have begun expressing gratitude to the Court for upholding.

“I am thrilled and gratified by today’s ruling that recognizes the constitutionality of the university’s admissions policy,” UT President Gregory Fenves said in a statement to the UT community. “The court has affirmed UT’s efforts to develop a diverse student body that brings with it educational benefits for all students. We must make sure all of our students are able to excel in the wider world when they leave campus — educating them in an environment as diverse as the United States is one of the most effective ways to do so.”

Gregory Vincent, vice president of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, addressed the media in front of the Supreme Court on Thursday afternoon, echoing Fenves’ sentiments.

“We are so very thrilled about the Supreme Court decision,” Vincent said. “We believe we have used race in an appropriate way ... All students benefit from a diverse learning environment … We are very encouraged as we go forward.”

Edward Blum, a former stockbroker who works with the Project on Fair Representation, a legal defense fund that has challenged multiple race-related policies, sought Fisher out and eventually filed suit against the University. Blum released a statement Thursday morning in response to the Court’s ruling, calling affirmative action policies “one of the most polarizing policies in America today.”

“As long as universities like the University of Texas continue to treat applicants differently by race and ethnicity, the social fabric that holds us together as a nation will be weakened,” Blum said. “Today’s decision is a sad step backward for the original, color blind principles to our civil rights laws.”

Race as a ‘factor of a factor of a factor’

Fisher’s seven-year legal battle stems from years of controversy surrounding affirmative action and automatic admission policies, and has raised important questions about UT’s evaluation of academic records.

Fisher, who graduated from high school with a 3.59 GPA and scored an 1180 out of 1600 on her SAT, was not in the top 10 percent of her class, and therefore was not automatically accepted under Texas’ top 10 percent law (a law requiring public universities to automatically accept high students school students in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. Because of a special modification, UT currently accepts those in the top 7 percent).  Fisher was forced to compete with other non-top 10 percent in-state applicants for the 841 spots reserved for those students that year — resulting in much lower chances for admission than the school’s overall acceptance rate that year, roughly 43 percent, the Huffington Post reported in December.

Because she wasn’t considered a top-tier student, Fisher was evaluated under UT-Austin’s standard holistic admissions process. Under this process, applicants are evaluated under two different categories — the Personal Achievement Index (PAI) and the Academic Index (AI). Under AI, UT-Austin considers class rank, high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores. Under PAI, an applicant is evaluated by their essays, personal achievements, leadership roles, extracurricular activities and yes — race.

“I think [Abby] pushed so hard because she had this idea planted in her brain that she deserved [acceptance] more than other types of students,” biology sophomore Faith Simon said. “It’s ridiculous that Abby had to be told ‘no’ not one time, but two.”

UT-Austin has been considering race in its evaluation of PAI scores since 2005, and while it does not record how race affects PAI scores or the impact race has on enrollment, the University has argued that this AI-PAI score, combined with the top 10 percent law, has significantly contributed to increased campus diversity. UT has said its affirmative action policies consider race and ethnicity in a limited manner, consistent with prior court rulings.

“Abigail was hurt personally and has the right to fight what she believes for, we all do. But I believe that she has to also look at the whole picture of affirmative action … UT still continues to be majority white school,” said Lourde Beatriz Ventura-Rubio, a first-generation college sophomore of Hispanic descent majoring in elementary education. “She wasn't accepted and unfortunately, she probably wasn't the first white, smart, privileged young woman [in that position].”

While Fisher wasn’t accepted into UT-Austin directly, she was offered placement in the Coordinated Admission Program (CAP), a program that allows students automatic acceptance into UT-Austin after completing their freshman year at another UT System institution. Fisher denied this offer and instead attended Louisiana State University. She has since earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and now works as a business analyst in Austin.

“There are many [people of color], and women, who would not have made it into UT without affirmative action and have put in the work needed to show they deserved it — something Abby did not do,” said Jazmine Batts, a math sophomore of Filipino descent. “Sadly, it feels a lot like a ‘If I can't have it, then no one else can’ situation.”

Agreement and dissent

UT-Austin has continued to emphasize the importance of affirmative action in securing campus diversity, an opinion supported by the University’s advocates through amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs submitted by outside organizations throughout the case.

“We have few minorities at the highest levels as chancellors and presidents,” reads a brief submitted by the American Association for Affirmative Action in support of UT-Austin. “We continue to observe racism and racial stereotyping on our campuses, and we have witnessed the isolation of students of color. The community at large is reflected on campus, and we are a microcosm of that community.”

Amicus curiae briefs were also submitted to the court in support of Fisher’s position in the case, arguing UT-Austin’s admissions policies promote racial discrimination and significant pressure from accrediting agencies and government subsidy programs to which higher education institutions are often subject.

“Higher education has historically been more prone to race discrimination than other industries rather than less so,” reads an amicus curiae brief submitted in support of Fisher by the California Association of Scholars. “Moreover, the centralizing force of federal subsidies enforced through federally recognized accrediting agencies threatens to aggravate the problem. The Constitution and its command of Equal Protection should not be and is not oblivious to this.”

However, this time around, the Supreme Court firmly decided in favor of affirmative action admissions policies, holding in its written opinion that the “race-conscious admissions program in use at the time of petitioner’s application is lawful under the Equal Protection Clause.”

“The University articulated concrete and precise goals—e.g., ending stereotypes, promoting ‘cross-racial understanding,’ preparing students for ‘an increasingly diverse workforce and society,’ and cultivating leaders with ‘legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry’—that mirror the compelling interest this Court has approved in prior cases,” reads the opinion.

The Court, however, also advised UT to continue reviewing their admissions procedures and holding them to constitutional standards, adding that their decision “does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement. It is the University’s ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies.”

Estefania Espinosa contributed to reporting.