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Thursday December 2nd

Court rules UNC can still use affirmative action as a part of its admissions process

UNC's Office of Undergraduate Admissions is pictured on Oct. 25.
Buy Photos UNC's Office of Undergraduate Admissions is pictured on Oct. 25.

The United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina ruled on Oct. 18 in favor of UNC continuing to use affirmative action as a part of its admissions process.

This ruling rejected the argument of Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit membership group and plaintiff of the case, that challenged the constitutionality of factoring race into admissions.

SFFA’s federal lawsuit said UNC was violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under the guise of diversity, on two fronts.

The lawsuit said UNC’s “racial preference” for underrepresented minority students was a fixed feature on those students’ applications. It also said there were non-race-based criteria that could instead be applied to admissions, such as socioeconomic status.

The lawsuit discussed identifying race or ethnicity as a defining feature in the admissions process.

"Only using race or ethnicity as a dominant factor in admissions decisions could, for example, account for the disparate treatment of high-achieving Asian American and white applicants and underrepresented minority applicants with inferior academic credentials," the lawsuit said. 

Beth Keith, associate vice chancellor of University communications, said in an email statement that the ruling made it clear that UNC’s admissions process is holistic and lawful.

“We evaluate each student in a deliberate and thoughtful way, appreciating individual strengths, talents and contributions to a vibrant campus community where students from all backgrounds can excel and thrive,” Keith said.

Timeline of SFFA v. UNC

In November 2014, SFFA filed two lawsuits — SFFA v. UNC and SFFA v. Harvard. Both questioned the legal precedent of affirmative action and how it sought to promote diverse learning environments.

But discoveries for the SFFA v. UNC case slowed as Fisher v. University of Texas was decided in 2016. Fisher v. University of Texas found that the use of affirmative action was constitutional, so long as it was narrowly tailored for the compelling interest of promoting educational diversity.

SFFA v. UNC then advanced into the discovery phase between 2017 and 2018.

In January 2019, SFFA and UNC submitted their legal briefs for a summary judgement to the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. A summary judgement consists of evidence and arguments for why a party should win a case without trial.

By April 2019, both parties submitted their final legal briefs, and summary judgement was denied in September. This meant the case would enter trial.

COVID-19 delayed the no-jury trial, which was originally scheduled for May of 2020. On Nov. 9, 2020, the trial was scheduled to begin and the ruling was declared on Oct. 18.

What does this mean for UNC?

The district court found that UNC provided “substantial, credible and largely uncontested evidence,” confirming the University had a compelling interest to promote educational diversity and followed judicial scrutiny, meaning their admissions process was largely holistic.

The University explained the importance of diversity in the final findings, saying social, economic and personal backgrounds were all factors in creating and sustaining a learning environment. By maintaining affirmative action, the University hoped to promote intellectual growth through rigorous discussion from members of different communities.

The court measured the progress of educational diversity on campus, looking at factors such as:

  • Underrepresented minority enrollment rate
  • Four-year graduation rates based on race, gender and first-generation standing, as well as GPAs for those groups
  • Feedback from faculty and staff on diversity issues.

These factors helped the court conclude that UNC’s practices were narrowly tailored, had compelling interest and were actively being experienced by underrepresented minority groups.

Though the ruling was in UNC’s favor, the final findings reported that there are still fewer students of color compared to white students, which can lead to feelings of alienation and creates situations where students think they must represent the entirety of their communities.

"Nevertheless, nearly seventy years after the first Black students were admitted to UNC, the minority students at the University still report being confronted with racial epithets, as well as feeling isolated, ostracized, stereotyped and viewed as tokens in a number of University spaces," Judge Loretta C. Biggs wrote in the ruling.


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