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UNC's affirmative action lawsuit moves forward with Supreme Court ruling

Legal defense foundation Project on Fair Representation filed the suit in November 2014 on behalf of Students for Fair Admissions, an organization aimed at helping students who felt they were wrongfully denied from colleges and universities due to affirmative action practices.

UNC’s case was put on hold to await the June outcome of a similar case against the University of Texas at Austin.

The Supreme Court ruled against Abigail Fisher, a white woman who felt she was wrongfully denied from the University of Texas because of affirmative action admissions processes.

Since the Fisher case reached a ruling over the summer, the UNC case is back on track and in the process of discovery, or fact-finding, Students for Fair Admissions President Edward Blum said.

Blum, a longtime proponent of fair admissions processes, accused UNC’s admissions policies of violating students’ 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

“We allege that that process of treating people differently by race — having their race help them in some instances and having their race harm them in some instances — is unnecessary, unfair and unconstitutional,” Blum said.

Fisher v. UT Precedence

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California, Irvine School of Law, said the Supreme Court’s decision marked affirmative action constitutional and it will remain that way unless the Fisher precedent is overturned — and he believes certain justices would have to retire from the court for that to happen.

“Fisher was a 4-3 decision — Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor. Kagan was disqualified from the case but everyone believes Kagan will vote to uphold affirmative action,” he said. “So long as those five justices are present, affirmative action will survive.”

Chemerinsky said another conservative on the court could sway the court to overrule Fisher and eliminate affirmative action.

“Now that the Supreme Court has made it clear that affirmative action is constitutional, that’s how the lower courts have to rule,” Chemerinsky said. “If the Supreme Court changes its mind, then the lower courts will come to a different conclusion. Fisher is quite definitive that affirmative action is constitutional.”

Blum was a part of the Fisher case and worked closely with attorneys throughout the case. He believes the Supreme Court got it wrong.

“Sixty-five percent of the American public believed that the Supreme Court ruled incorrectly in the Fisher case, and it’s interesting that even a majority of African-Americans who were asked about the use of race in university admissions believes that the Supreme Court got it wrong,” Blum said, citing a Gallup poll done shortly after the ruling.

UNC admissions

Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at UNC, was unable to talk about the pending lawsuit against UNC, but he said the admissions office looks at students as individuals and does not group them or place labels on them based on race or any other demographic.

“The fact of the matter is that no two students are the same,” he said. “Putting a label on a student and assuming that the student is the same as another person who could bear the same label just does not make sense to us.”

The admissions process is more than just one person reading an application and making a decision, he said.

“There’s kind of an internal dialogue that I think keeps us honest and also keeps us pushing forward and trying to understand students more effectively,” Farmer said.

Another check is students’ ability to appeal their decision if they believe the office got it wrong, granting the student a new and separate review.

Farmer estimated there are between 80 and 120 appeals each year, but most aren’t successful because of the quality control measures before decisions are sent out.

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“We know that no student can fully be represented through an application for admission. We know that every student is capable of more than we can really know and maybe in some cases, capable of more than the student really knows,” Farmer said. “We really believe that we’re admitting people to the University who will benefit from the experience here and will be a blessing to others.”