How Fisher v. University of Texas Impacts Race-Based Admissions

Fisher v. University of Texas | Race-Based Admissions

Posted by Shelley Kilpatrick on 28 June 2016 |

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Supreme Court Rules Race and Ethnicity is Allowed in UT’s Admission Process

supreme court fisherAfter almost a decade of legal back and forth, the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin finally reached a conclusion last week. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the university’s consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions is legal under the Equal Protection Clause.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who in the past has been against educational policies that include race, delivered the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, where he was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

On the dissenting side was Justice Samuel Alito, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Elena Kagan worked on the case before she joined the Supreme Court, and as such she recused herself.

A Short Timeline: Considering Race in the University of Texas’ Admissions Process

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the history of considering race in admissions at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), here is a brief history:

1940: Breaking Down Racial Barriers

In 1940, Herman Marion Sweatt, the grandson of a slave, applied to the University of Texas, but he was denied admission because of his race. Taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court—in a decision that came four years before Brown v. Board of Education—justices ruled that UT must admit Sweatt into the all-white law school.

1996: Denying Affirmative Action in Admissions

This set a precedent to include race in the admissions process. However, this stance was challenged in the case of Hopwood v. Texas. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals took the position that considering race and ethnicity in the decision-making process to favor minority students—even though it’s a well-meaning policy—violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

1997: Taking on the Top Ten Percent Rule

A year later, in order to combat the large drop-off of minority enrolled students, the Texas legislature passed House Bill 588, more commonly known as the “Top 10 Percent Rule.” What this did was automatically admit any high school senior who graduated in the top ten percent of their class to all state-funded universities—which includes UT.

2003: A Narrowly Tailored Use of Race Allowed

Things stayed this way until 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that in order to achieve diversity, a narrowly tailored use of race can be used in admissions decisions. After this case, UT modified its admissions policy to include race as a factor once again.

2008: The Beginning of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

That brings us to 2008 and Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Abigail N. Fisher, a Caucasian woman who was not in the top ten percent of her class, applied to UT and was denied admission.

Fisher then filed suit, claiming that UT was in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it used race as part of the admissions process. On the other hand, UT argued that the consideration of race was necessary for the greater pursuit of diversity and met the narrowly tailored restriction.

In 2013, the Supreme Court justices ruled 7-1 that the lower courts did not conduct a sufficient strict scrutiny examination in the case—which sent the case back down to the Fifth Circuit court.

2016: The Final Ruling on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

But in 2015, the case was once again sent to the Supreme Court. However, this time when the Supreme Court ruled, in a 4-3 decision, justices determined that UT’s admissions policy to include the consideration of race and ethnicity does not violate Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Underscoring the Importance of Diversity on Campus

The Supreme Court’s decision underscores the importance of diversity on college and university campuses. Writing for the Supreme Court blog, John Paul Schnapper-Casteras, Special Counsel for Appellate and Supreme Court Advocacy at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Washington, D.C., exclaimed, “Yesterday’s decision roundly reaffirms what we already know, that diversity – across many dimensions, including race – makes us all stronger and allows us to move forward.”

It also informs us that colleges and universities must continue to strive to foster inclusive campuses, because simply having a diverse student body isn’t enough.

If you want to learn more about how you can improve diversity and inclusion on your campus, download this podcast we recorded with Dr. Lisa McBride, Chief Diversity Officer at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM).

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