Supreme Court raises bar for affirmative action at colleges

The U.S. Supreme Court, given the choice of rejecting or endorsing a race-based admissions policy at the University of Texas, on Monday opted instead to send back to a lower court a case involving a woman who was rejected by the University of Texas in 2008.

The ruling stopped short of reversing earlier high court rulings on affirmative action, but ultimately may mean universities will face a higher standard when employing race-based admissions policies.

The woman, Abigail Fisher, argued that she was rejected by the university despite the fact that her academic achievements should’ve earned her a chance to be admitted. Fisher said she was rejected because the university considered race as a factor for admission. Fisher is white.

In a 7-1 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy dismissed an opportunity to make a sweeping decision on affirmative action policies, opting instead to hand the decision back to the lower court and arguing that the court had not given enough scrutiny to the University of Texas’ admissions program.

“The reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity,” he wrote.

The case was argued nearly a decade after the Supreme Court held that the University of Michigan Law School could consider race as among the factors in its admissions process in an effort to create a diverse student body.

Russell Wheeler, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, said by not outright rejecting or endorsing the school’s policy, the court actually said quite a bit.

In 2003, he said, the high court had a completely different make-up of justices including Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who has since been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito.

The court “could’ve said those days are over and we will no longer allow public institutions to take into consideration race,” he said.

“A lot of people thought the chance was very good that the court would take a fundamentally different view of the matter than they did in 2003,” Wheeler said.

He said the Supreme Court will have another opportunity to weigh in on affirmative action during the session that begins in October, when it will consider whether Michigan violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by amending their state Constitution to bar affirmative action.

Justice Ruth Ginsburg offered the lone dissent in the case, saying she would’ve reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals and maintained the University of Texas’ current policy.

“I remain convinced, “those that candidly disclose their consideration of race (are) preferable to those that conceal it,” she wrote.

Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the decision, most likely because she was solicitor general for the Obama administration when it weighed in on the case.

Local impact

Ohio State University and Miami University, which both consider race among many factors when admitting students, celebrated the court’s decision. Both schools said they do not expect to have to make any changes to their processes. Most area universities do not look at race, including Wright State, Wittenberg, Urbana, University of Dayton and Cincinnati University.

“We’re very pleased with the court’s decision,” said Vern Granger, OSU associate vice president and director of admissions. Granger said OSU reviews its process every year, and “we believe that it does adhere to the strict scrutiny standard that was called for by the court.”

Miami’s Michael Kabbaz said the university will review its process in light of the ruling and following its board of trustees’ approval of a new long-term strategic plan which focuses on diversity. “We will redouble our efforts and look at everything we do to make sure it’s justified and tightly coupled with our mission,” said Kabbaz, associate vice president for enrollment management.

Race is among dozens of factors considered during the admission process, Kabbaz said. “We value every aspect of the applicant. We get to know the applicant… and we take race and ethnicity into consideration,” he said.

Last year, Miami hired a recruiter to focus on urban areas, including Dayton. The incoming class is the most diverse in the university’s history, with more than 13 percent coming from minority populations.

UC also hired two recruiters to focus on under-represented students in recent years, said Tom Canepa, associate vice president for admissions. UC admissions officers use a worksheet to consider students’ grades, test scores, activities, etc., and “race purposefully is not on that,” he said.

Overall, in Ohio, minorities make up about 24 percent of college students, according to the nonprofit Complete College America. The breakdown resembles the state’s overall population.

The court’s 7-1 decision did send a hopeful message to higher education “that diversity matters,” even as they know there will be future challenges to affirmative action in higher education, said Kathy McEuen Harmon, UD’s assistant vice president and dean of admission and financial aid.

“Generally, I think it’s a very hopeful ruling and it keeps the door open for all people to have access to higher education,” she said.

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