Why does the fight for affirmative action continue?

Affirmative action admissions programs at universities across the country may be in jeopardy in light of a recent memo by President Donald Trump's administration.

An internal announcement from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sought attorneys to work on investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college admissions.

The memo comes in the wake of numerous ongoing affirmative action suits, including one against Harvard University, claiming its admissions practices are biased against Asian-American students. Harvard’s incoming class is the most diverse in the university’s history.

UNC admissions declined an interview and said in a statement that it would be premature to speculate about actions the Justice Department may take. 

“The University stands by its individualized, holistic admissions process,” the statement said.

UNC Law Professor Erika Wilson said the Justice Department’s most recent strategy is different than its typical tactics of supporting defendants through amicus briefs or statements by the solicitor general. 

Intervention by the Trump administration could have an impact on the ongoing fight to reverse a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that allows universities to use race as a factor in admissions but doesn't allow quotas. 

“The jurisprudence that race-conscious admissions stands on, at least in the higher education context, is tenuous,” Wilson said. “There is ample room for Trump to step in here and for the Supreme Court to come back this time with a different result, especially with the composition of the court.”

Students for Fair Admissions filed an affirmative action lawsuit against UNC in Nov. 2014. The suit claimed the school was violating applicants’ 14th Amendment rights by considering race as a factor in its admissions process.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled in January 2017 that the University did not have to change admissions policies.

The court required UNC to provide Students for Fair Admissions with certain information from applications of the entering 2016 and 2017 classes.

Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, said in an email on May 22 to 2016 and 2017 first-year undergraduate applicants that the court ordered UNC admissions to produce academic, demographic and other information from applications but not personal essays or letters of recommendation. 

The University plans to delete any information regarding applicants' identities. Students for Fair Admissions may not take any steps to try to learn the identity of any applicant or to contact any applicant without first obtaining approval from the court, according to the email.

"The University is vigorously defending its current undergraduate admissions policies and continues to take great care to comply fully with all applicable laws and the standards set by the United States Supreme Court," the University said in a notice.

The demographics of UNC's Class of 2021

Of UNC’s incoming class of first years, 34 percent of students identify themselves as a race or ethnicity other than Caucasian, according to a report by UNC admissions. 

2016’s incoming class was 71 percent Caucasian or White, according to UNC admissions data. 

The percentage of students identifying as Black or African-American decreased from 11 percent in 2016 to 9 percent in 2017. All other groups surveyed increased in percentage from 2016 to 2017.

Wilson said race conscious admissions programs are necessary to enroll a diverse class of students due to educational segregation lower down in the K-12 system and historical discrimination.

Historical discrimination facing certain groups of color has meant that they do not have the resources to live in a good school system like Chapel Hill's, she said.

She said using race-conscious admissions policies doesn’t mean universities are admitting students that are unqualified or don’t deserve to be there.

“The baseline is neither neutral nor fair, and the use of race as a factor is just reflective of understanding the lived reality of many students of color and trying to even that baseline,” Wilson said.



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