Lawsuit against UT could reshape affirmative action
Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 19:07
A white female will bring the issue of affirmative action policy in college admissions before the U.S. Supreme Court after a nine-year hiatus, her accusations aimed at the University of Texas.
The nation’s highest court will hear oral arguments this fall in the case Fisher v. University of Texas. Attorneys affiliated with conservative activist groups will argue on behalf of Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008.
“The case really is asking: ‘Is treating others differently based on race a violation of the Equal Protection Clause?’” said McKinzie Craig, political science doctoral candidate.
The Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits states from denying equal protection under the law to any person. Critics of affirmative action argue that preferential policies based on race do not offer the same protection to individuals who are not minorities as to those who are, referred to as “benign discrimination.”
The last time the Supreme Court addressed the issue was in 2003, when justices struck down a point-based admissions system incorporating race at the University of Michigan but upheld a policy that considered race as one factor at the university’s law school.
“The court has said that claiming ‘diversity’ [as a justification for considering race in admissions] meets the constitutional standard of a compelling government interest,” Craig said.
When administrators redesigned the UT affirmative action policy after the 2003 decision, they made every effort to follow the legal guidelines set by the Supreme Court, said Wendy Moore, attorney and sociology professor at A&M.
“UT’s method is very careful, thoughtful and nuanced. They used all sorts of legal strategies and were very careful when creating this policy,” Moore said. “They looked at the population and their own student population, doing a bunch of research to redevelop an affirmative action program. If you can’t do it this conscientiously, [then it seems] you cannot do it at all.”
Moore said that race is only used as one of many factors in the evaluation of candidates. Students submit an essay about what they bring to the university in terms of diversity, she said, and race can be a part of that.
“I am surprised that they agreed to hear this case since it is exactly the same situation as the  Michigan Law School case,” Moore said. “Maybe they are rehearing it in order to revisit it.”
Moore said some speculate that the court will “get rid of” affirmative action with the decision.
A&M students have mixed views on the practice of affirmative action. Junior psychology major Malaika Murry said students often don’t respect the educational benefit affirmative action can bring to campuses, diversifying the demographic to improve educational exposure.
“They think that unqualified minorities are being admitted just so that their institution looks good,” Murry said.
Other students, such as junior economics major Jordan Silverman, are not happy with the means used to achieve the goals of creating a heterogeneous student body.
“Discrimination of any sort is unacceptable in any context, regardless of the motivation,” Silverman said.
Tyra Metoyer, who graduated from UT before the Supreme Court established modern limitations on affirmative action, pointed out that people today do not actively pursue policies aimed at making up for the many years of discrimination and racism in the U.S.
“A lot people say they support some kind of preferences for students from low socioeconomic areas or who are first-generation college students, but don’t want it to be race because they don’t want it to be discriminatory,” said Metoyer, now a higher education administration doctoral student at A&M.
Texas lawmakers implemented a state-wide affirmative action policy at Texas public universities when they passed the “Top 10% Rule” in 1997. The legislation is not based on race, but requires state-funded universities to admit all applicants who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class regardless of academic competition, standardized test scores or other admissions factors. This policy came on the heels of a 1996 decision by a federal appellate court that struck down a more explicit affirmative action practice by the University of Texas.
After the 1996 decision, Texas A&M and the University of Texas both discontinued their affirmative action admissions policies. To this day, Texas A&M does not practice a unique affirmative action policy in admissions decisions, though it does abide by the top 10 percent rule.
“A&M does not use race or ethnicity in making an admission decision, especially for freshmen. The top 10 percent policy has helped with [diversity of] race and ethnicity, as well as geography, getting students from rural areas,” said Scott McDonald, director of admissions at A&M. “We use recruitment tactics to target historically underrepresented groups. Though not using affirmative action specifically, we are relying on many other tactics.”
UT, on the other hand, reinstated its own affirmative action policy after the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling regarding the University of Michigan. This is the policy challenged by Fisher before the Supreme Court.
Voicing support for the top 10 percent policy, Murry said many minorities would not be admitted without this statewide rule.
Senior history major Garrett Emerson opposes affirmative action that considers race, but supports use of the top 10 percent policy.
“You should be admitted on your education and your merits. Your ethnicity should not play a huge part in the acceptance process,” Emerson said.
Metoyer said this approach neglects a continuing history of societal inequalities.