WASHINGTON – The nation’s colleges and universities just finished a school year of extraordinary debate on questions about racial inequality, with activists demanding steps to make campuses more inclusive for minority students.
Protesters toppled the University of Missouri’s president after a series of racially charged incidents at the state flagship in Columbia and forced Princeton University to reckon with the segregationist legacy of one of its famed leaders, Woodrow Wilson, the nation’s 28th president. Across the country schools grappled with how to combat bigotry and protect free speech at the same time.
Higher education is now bracing for another possible earthquake with racial dimensions.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected soon to issue a ruling on affirmative action in college admissions, in a case called Fisher v. University of Texas. Plaintiff Abigail Fisher, a white woman denied admission to UT, is challenging the constitutionality of UT’s consideration of race and ethnicity as a factor in assembling an undergraduate class. The ruling would come within the next couple weeks as the court wraps up its term. The court issued rulings in other cases Thursday morning, but not in Fisher.
When the court heard oral arguments in the Fisher case in December, Justice Antonin Scalia made waves with this comment about black students: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to – 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 less – a slower-track school where they do well.”
Scalia died in February, leaving the court with eight justices. But one of them, Elena Kagan, recused herself from the case. Higher education leaders are hoping the court will leave intact an admissions system allowing colleges – with exceptions for public institutions in some states – to consider race as one factor in a “holistic” review of an application.
“Many events in recent years have served as important reminders that our Nation, despite path-breaking progress on some fronts, continues to face, and at times to struggle with, matters of race and inclusion that remain ever present in our communities,” lawyers for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote in a brief to the court. UNC’s lawyers argued that there are no workable race-neutral alternatives that would enable the school to meet its diversity goals and have a top-flight class.
In another brief, attorneys for Brown University and several other highly selective private research universities urged the court to continue to allow schools to “structure admissions programs that take account of race and ethnicity as single factors within a highly individualized, holistic review process.” They added: “Race-blind approaches to holistic review would ignore a salient aspect of applicants’ identities and experiences — disregarding characteristics that, to some applicants, may have played a central role in shaping their goals and achievements.”
There appears to be little dispute about the educational value of racial and ethnic diversity on a college campus. The issue is how to achieve it. Some experts say it is possible to use factors such as socioeconomic background and geography to assemble an acceptably diverse class. But University of California officials say that an affirmative action ban enacted in that state in the 1990s has hampered their ability to enroll African-American, Latino and American Indian students at the highly ranked Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses.
When it comes, the ruling will be the court’s second in the Fisher case. In 2013, a 7-1 majority on the court sent UT’s race-conscious affirmative action plan back to lower courts for further review. Other potentially significant lawsuits are pending in lower courts that have alleged unlawful bias in admissions at Harvard and UNC.
If the court compels major changes to admissions programs, colleges will be forced to scramble to comply with new rules. The admissions cycle for the class that will enter in fall 2017 is now getting under way.