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Race-based admissions challenged in U.S. Supreme Court

Abigail Fisher, a white woman in her 20s, is suing the University of Texas at Austin for its race-conscious admissions policy. Fisher claims her application was unfairly rejected, citing minority peers were accepted despite having lower test scores.

In 2014, UNC and Harvard University faced a similar suit. The University’s affirmative action policy came under fire, criticized for making race the defining feature of student’s application.

Approximately 25 percent of UT-Austin’s yearly admissions are decided by what the University president calls a “holistic admissions process,” which incorporates race and ethnicity. The other 75 percent are filled using what’s known as the “top 10 percent rule,” a Texas law that guarantees admission to the University of Texas system for students in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

“Our policy allows us to consider applicants’ academic performance, as well as other factors including extracurricular accomplishments, socio-economic backgrounds, hardships overcome, special talents and, in a limited manner consistent with Supreme Court precedent, race and ethnicity,” said President Gregory Fenves in an email to faculty and students in December.

“It’s vital that our students have the opportunity to work with others from different backgrounds and experiences — and the freedom to learn from the myriad perspectives, viewpoints and ideas that should flourish on campus,” he said.

This is the second time Fisher’s case has been tried by the Supreme Court, the first being in 2013. The Court did not rule on the policy then but handed the case down to a lower court, which upheld the policy in 2014.

The way the Court rules on UT-Austin’s admission policy could impact race conscious admissions across the nation, but it need not put an end to affirmative action in universities altogether, said Ted Shaw, director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Shaw said given the Court’s conservative makeup, the plan might be struck down.

He specifically referenced comments made by conservative-leaning Justice Antonin Scalia during oral arguments on Dec. 9.

“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well,” Scalia said.

Opponents of affirmative action argue college admissions should be blind to race and ethnicity. George Leef, director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a conservative think-tank in North Carolina, said colleges would be better off if they focused solely on academics, rather than trying to socially engineer the student body.

“People should be judged on their capabilities and the happenstance of their ancestry has nothing to do with those capabilities,” he said. “The best case outcome ... is a flat out ruling that public colleges and universities may not segregate people based on their ancestry, race or ethnicity and prefer some over others on that basis.”

But Shaw said race-conscious admissions policies are necessary for colleges to overcome years of racism and segregation in higher education.

“It’s important to go back and acknowledge how race came to be a consideration in admissions,” he said. “Race didn’t come into being as a consequence of growing awareness about the importance of diversity — quite the opposite. The issue of race and admissions came about as a consequence of a long, long history of racial discrimination against African-Americans.”

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