Top court to hear university race admissions case

WASHINGTON Tue Feb 21, 2012 4:53pm EST

The U.S. Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009.  REUTERS/Molly Riley

The U.S. Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Molly Riley

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court said on Tuesday it would decide whether a state university may consider an applicant's race to achieve a more diverse student body, revisiting in an election year a divisive social issue it last addressed nine years ago.

Adding to blockbuster cases on President Barack Obama's healthcare law and on Arizona's immigration crackdown, the high court agreed to hear an appeal by a white female applicant who was denied undergraduate admission in 2008 to the University of Texas at Austin.

Abigail Fisher challenged the university admissions policies for discriminating against her on the basis of race in violation of her constitutional rights and the federal civil rights laws, putting the court at the center of the debate over such programs in higher education.

Her attorney urged the Supreme Court to reconsider its last ruling on the issue in 2003, when it reaffirmed that a diverse student population can justify use of race as one factor to help minorities gain admission to public universities and colleges.

Since 2003, the court, with the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, appointees of President George W. Bush, has become more conservative and more skeptical of racial preferences in education.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case in its upcoming term that begins in October, with a ruling likely early next year. It will be one of the highest profile cases of the 2012-13 term.

The court is likely to hear arguments in the case around the same time as the presidential, congressional and other U.S. elections in November.

Obama, the first black U.S. president, and his top officials have supported allowing educators to consider the race of students in certain plans designed to promote diversity.

The high court will consider the case with eight of its nine members, as Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in considering the appeal. She gave no reason for her recusal, but she has taken herself out of cases when she worked on the issue in her prior job as solicitor general in the Obama administration.

A federal judge and a U.S. appeals court upheld the admissions policies the University of Texas adopted in 2005. The Supreme Court agreed to review the appeals court ruling.

RACE CONSIDERED WITH OTHER FACTORS

Texas provides admission for those in the top 10 percent of the state high schools. Fisher did not qualify and was put into a pool of applicants where race is considered along with other factors such as test scores, community service, leadership qualities and work experience.

She was competing for less than 20 percent of admission slots that remained. Fisher and another white female student denied admission sued, but the other applicant has already graduated from another college and has dropped out of the case.

Fisher said in the lawsuit that her academic credentials exceeded those of many minority students, but that she lost out because of a coding system in which race is used as a factor in admissions decisions to increase classroom diversity.

In a statement, Fisher said she was grateful her case would be heard, adding, "I hope the court will decide that all future UT (University of Texas) applicants will be allowed to compete for admission without their race or ethnicity being a factor."

In Austin, university president William Powers said in a statement the institution "will vigorously seek a decision" reaffirming the educational benefits of diversity and its narrowly tailored admissions policy.

On the university website, he said the student body was diverse, with African American, Hispanic and Asian American students making up more than 35 percent of the enrollment.

Opponents of using race in admissions applauded the court's decision. "The court is right to take the case because the justices must keep an eye on what schools are doing," said Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity.

Supporters, such as Brenda Shum, the senior counsel for the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, expressed confidence the policy would be upheld.

"This case provides a platform for a newly configured U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions in higher education," she said. "We remain confident that the court will reaffirm that colleges and universities may pursue the educational benefits of diversity."

Vanderbilt University law professor Brian Fitzpatrick said the court possibly could use the case to overturn its 2003 ruling. "It is also possible the court will narrowly focus on the unique circumstances of the University of Texas," he said.

Columbia University law professor Ted Shaw, who previously worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the court decision was "potentially troubling news for colleges, universities and those who support efforts to diversity institutions of higher education."

The Supreme Court case is Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, No. 11-345.

(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Christopher Wilson)

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Comments (12)
John2244 wrote:
Whats interesting is most people are focused on the racial preference for poor minorities in public universities. What they dont consider is racial preference given FOR whites in private universities. For example, all the Ivy league schools have higher entrance requirements for Asians. Currently Asians make up about 6% of the population but have about 60% of the Ivy League applications with high enough SAT scores. But the Asian intake is only 15-20% at a school like Harvard. Raw statistics show that Harvard should be about 40-50% Asian but Harvard has the right to set different standards for different ethnic groups. Unless this Supreme Court says its unconstitutional.

Without racial preference, in public schools Asians would probably displace white students while some white students would displace black and latino students.

So the net results for white students would be about the same number in regular schools and a 30% reduction in elite and Ivy League schools.

The net reduction for blacks would be huge – and I think thats wrong as its important to spread a little opportunity around socio-economic groups. There is a saying, the more you socialize education the less you need to socialize the economy.

Feb 21, 2012 1:11pm EST  --  Report as abuse
UnPartisan wrote:
@John2244

“There is a saying, the more you socialize education the less you need to socialize the economy.”

Is there any proof that is the case? I would think that allowing people to have an opportunity and thereby keeping other people from having an opportunity based on the color of their skin would only promote a feeling that one race is inferior, and requires help from others. The other race would then feel as if they are being held back artificially by the inferior races. All in all, I would consider it racism, and there is nothing equal about the opportunities in these institutions of learning.

Feb 21, 2012 4:00pm EST  --  Report as abuse
jaham wrote:
A good old fashioned Catch 22. Government tells you that you cannot look at someones age, race, religion etc when making hiring, enrollment or any other such decisions. With the other hand, the government tells you that you need a certain percentage of each minority to be well diversified and balanced…which is it?

Feb 21, 2012 4:38pm EST  --  Report as abuse
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