The University filed an amicus brief along with 12 other schools Monday in support of the University of Texas at Austin’s use of race in its admission decisions, which is to be challenged in an upcoming Supreme Court case.
Oral arguments for the case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, are set to begin in December, and a decision finding the school’s practices unconstitutional could significantly undercut affirmative action practices in the United States.
The conflict centers on Abigail Fisher, a white Texas resident, who claims she was discriminated against in the University of Texas’ admission process because of her race.
An amicus curiae brief is a document sent to the court by a third party, that outlines the party’s opinions and provides additional information on a case. The brief — signed by all Ivy League schools, excluding Harvard, and several other universities — explains that “a diverse student body adds significantly to the rigor and depth of students’ educational experience.”
The brief notes that the signing schools “recognized long ago that admissions by purely numerical factors such as grade point averages and standardized test scores would not effectively accomplish their broader educational missions.”
A history of appeals
In 1997, Texas lawmakers passed a bill requiring the University of Texas to admit all high school seniors ranking in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. After the university saw significant differences between the racial and ethnic makeup of its undergraduate population and that of the state, they modified their race-neutral admission policy to allow consideration of race as a factor in admission.
In 2008, Fisher, not in the top ten percent of her class, competed for admission with other in-state applicants, also not in their high schools’ top ten percent, when she applied to the University of Texas. After she was denied admission, she filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging that the University of Texas’ use of race as a factor in admissions violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The university countered that its use of race was a way for them to pursue greater diversity.
After a federal district court decided in favor of the University of Texas, Fisher appealed the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sustained the ruling. In 2012, she turned to the Supreme Court for an appeal.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case, Brown submitted a joint amicus brief to the Court, similar to the one filed Monday.
“This decision is so important it can affect the welfare of other institutions,” said Beverly Ledbetter, vice president and general counsel for the University, in an October 2012 Herald article. “We have a vested interest.”
Fisher’s 2012 appeal was met with a 7-1 decision to vacate the previous ruling and send the case back to the 5th Circuit.
In the Court’s majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The attainment of a diverse student body … serves values beyond race alone, including enhanced classroom dialogue and the lessening of racial isolation and stereotypes.”
Two years later, the 5th Circuit once again decided in favor of the University of Texas. Fisher made a final appeal to the Supreme Court. In June, the Court announced it would examine the case a second time.
Policy of the present
The signing schools “urge the Court to continue to affirm that a holistic review of individual student applications — with consideration of all their individual traits — is consistent with narrow tailoring,” according to the most recent amicus brief.
When Fisher applied to the University of Texas in 2008, 92 percent of the school’s in-state spots had been filled by students ranking in the top 10 percent of their classes, according to court documents. The remaining applicants were evaluated based upon their test scores, grades, leadership, activities, service and two required essays. Special circumstances were also taken into consideration, including the student’s socioeconomic status, language spoken in the home, family structure and race.
“Race is considered as part of the larger holistic review of every applicant regardless of race,” said the University of Texas’ Director of Admissions, Kedra Ishop, before the 5th Circuit. “An applicant’s race, standing alone, is neither a benefit nor detriment to any applicant.”
Fisher, with a 3.59 grade-point average and 1180 SAT, perhaps did not stand out amongst the remaining in-state applicants, a group for which the acceptance rate is lower than Harvard’s, the documents note.
The brief states that a holistic review is necessary in determining admission — high test scores may not be of much weight in a university’s admission decision.
One signing school received applications from over 7,000 individuals who were their high school’s valedictorians or had GPAs over 4.0, but only 7 percent of that group was admitted, the brief notes. That same institution — which was not named — admitted only 10 percent of the nearly 8,000 applicants who scored in the top 1 percent nationally on the SAT, the brief added.
The brief stressed the importance of a diverse student body, but it acknowledged the boundaries set forth in another Supreme Court case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In that case, the Court ruled that a university may not define diversity as a specified percentage of its student body or effectively establish a quota system to meet such a percentage.
The responsibility of how to define academic diversity is a task that should be left to each individual institution, the brief asserted.