UW: No changes needed to affirmative action policy after Supreme Court decision

Fisher image UW-Madison will not have to change its affirmative action policies after the Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a challenge to the use of race in college admissions, officials said.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Fisher v. Texas could have resulted in major changes to how colleges across the country factor race and ethnicity into their admission decisions, had the court struck down the University of Texas affirmative action policy at issue in the case.

But in a 4-3 ruling, the justices upheld the policy, delivering a win to proponents of affirmative action.

UW-Madison officials said in a statement Thursday that their analysis of the decision found that the university’s admissions practices “are consistent with the court’s ruling.”

UW-Madison considers the race of applicants as one factor in a “holistic” admissions process that also includes their scores on standardized tests, written statements, extracurricular activities and other categories, officials say. Academics are given the greatest weight in that process, and students are not accepted solely because of their race.

It’s important to consider race and ethnicity as factors in admissions, UW officials say, because doing so helps create a more diverse student body, which in turn benefits students by promoting cultural understanding and preparing them to enter a diverse workforce.

“We are committed to a diverse and inclusive university because of the educational benefits that come from such diversity,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank said. “Our commitment enhances our academic mission, provides a wealth of experiences and viewpoints for our students and improves the overall quality of our university.”

The U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold the University of Texas policy that uses race as a factor for admissions is another significant victory for the use of affirmative action in higher education.  The case was one of three from Texas before the court directly impacting millions of Americans.

In limited instances, to promote a diverse student body, race can be a factor in who’s admitted to a college and who is not, the court ruled Thursday.

A decision against the university could have prevented universities from considering race when admitting students.

Vinay Harpalani, a Savannah Law School professor who focuses on race in higher education, said the ruling is not cut-and-dried and will likely require schools to take certain measures if they are to consider race in admissions. Data Texas kept on its campus diversity was crucial in convincing the court to uphold its policy, he said.

“What this ruling does is it really lays out a blueprint in my mind for what colleges and universities will have to do to justify their race-conscious admissions plans,” Harpalani said. “The court discusses in detail all the things UT did” like campus studies and surveys. “That’s important,” Harpalani added, “because now universities have some sense of how to uphold their plan.”

In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court said the school will need to continue to study this data to make sure its plan is necessary for a diverse campus.

“The Court’s affirmance of the University’s admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement,” Kennedy said. “It is the University’s ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admission policies.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said that UT did not sufficiently show that the school’s policy of admitting all students in the top-10 percent of their high school graduating class did a good enough job of creating diversity, since the state’s high schools are already so segregated.

“Even though UT has never provided any coherent explanation for its asserted need to discriminate on the basis of race, and even though UT’s position relies on a series of unsupported and noxious racial assumptions, the majority concludes that UT has met its heavy burden,” he wrote. “This conclusion is remarkable—and remarkably wrong.”

Justice Elena Kegan recused herself from the case because she had been solicitor general during the case’s earlier phase. Her recusal, and the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, left the court with just seven justices to vote on the case, ensuring a majority.

The case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, centered around a white, female student who was denied admission to the University of Texas, which uses race as part of its criteria in admitting certain students.

The student, Abigail Fisher, said she was unfairly discriminated against because she was white. Texas countered that its policy is crucial in building racial diversity on campus.

The school’s admissions policy is slightly unusual.

Under Texas law when Fisher applied, students in the top 10 percent of their high school’s graduating class were automatically granted admission to the school. (That number is now 7 percent for Fall 2017 applicants.)

Any students not in the top 10 percent were evaluated based on a “holistic review process” that considers several factors, including race. Fisher, from the Texas city of Sugar Land, applied to the school in 2008.

She did not meet the 10-percent qualification and was denied admission under the review process.

She sued. (She graduated from Louisiana State University in 2012.)

According to the school, 41 percent of its freshman class is white. The state of Texas as a whole is 80 percent white, according to the latest available census data.

But because Texas’s high schools are so racially segregated, the so-called “10-Percent Plan” actually boosts diversity at UT on its own. The school may not need to use race later in the admissions process since it’s already getting a diverse pool of students from the 10-percent law, some argued.

The justices seemed split on that issue in a testy December hearing that lasted 35 minutes more than scheduled.

“Your underlying claim is that there is something deficient about the top-10 admittees,” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. told a UT attorney, seeming to think that the 10-percent law was enough.

Justice Ruth Bader Gisnberg strongly disagreed, saying that using the 10-percent plan to promote racial diversity was based on a flawed state geography.

“It’s totally dependent upon having racially segregated neighborhoods, racially segregated schools, and it operates as a disincentive for a minority student to step out of that segregated community and attempt to get an integrated education,” she said.

In the most controversial remarks of the hearing, the late Antonin Scalia suggested that black students would be better off at “a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.”

“Most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas,” he continued. “They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked, “What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?”

This wasn’t the first time the Supreme Court has heard the Texas case.

Lower courts upheld the university’s policy, and the case made it to the nation’s highest court in 2013. It was sent back to the 5th Circuit Court to apply “strict scrutiny” to its ruling. That court came back with the same ruling, again in favor of Texas.

Compiled from madison.com and patch.com