U stays silent in affirmative action case

More than half of Big Ten schools have taken a stance on the issue.
October 30, 2012

Though the U.S. Supreme Court isn’t expected to decide Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin  until July, individuals and institutions across the U.S. have taken public stances to support affirmative action in the college admission process.

Among these are 10 public research universities — including more than half of the Big Ten  — which together filed an amicus brief  in support of the University of Texas.

Though the University of Minnesota uses affirmative action as a factor in admissions, it has not taken an official stance.

The Supreme Court could overturn its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action in admissions at the University of Michigan Law School.

In that case, the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center  filed an amicus brief in support of the University of Michigan Law School, but the University as a whole didn’t.

After extensive internal discussion with University members including President Eric Kaler, Provost Karen Hanson  and members of the Board of Regents, the University decided against filing an amicus brief, said General Counsel Mark Rotenberg.

Amicus briefs typically provide specific facts to a case that would not otherwise be available to the Court, he said, and the University wouldn’t be able to contribute substantial evidence in support of the University of Texas.

“The feeling was that writing our own brief wouldn’t be all that helpful,” Rotenberg said.

Affirmative action policies

The University of Minnesota currently follows the precedent established in Grutter v. Bollinger in its own admissions policies.

Students are evaluated based on an “individualized holistic review,” said Rachelle Hernandez, director of admissions.

Admissions officers use a set of primary and secondary factors to evaluate applicants, she said. Primary factors include academic criteria such as grade point average and high school coursework.

Secondary criteria are more varied — whether a student has a particular talent or is a first-generation college student, for example. Among these are applicants’ contributions to the diversity of the student body — factors including gender, age, socioeconomic background and race.

Each factor is valued equally, Hernandez said, and all primary and secondary factors are considered in each case.

At the University of Texas at Austin, admissions work differently. State law requires any student who graduates in the top 10 percent of his or her class at a Texas high school to be admitted to the university automatically.

This policy makes the student body at the University of Texas different from the University of Minnesota, Rotenberg said, and is one of the reasons the University didn’t file an amicus brief.

“The facts and the law and the racial composition of the class and the way we do affirmative action here at the University of Minnesota is simply very, very different,” he said.

When affirmative action in college admissions was upheld in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Office of the General Counsel worked extensively to help the University’s admissions offices comply with the ruling, Rotenberg said.

The University also held an open conference to discuss the issue.

If Grutter v. Bollinger is overturned, the Office of the General Counsel will go through the same process, Rotenberg said.

Potential effects

If the Supreme Court rules to overturn affirmative action in admissions, many colleges and universities will be affected, said Jennifer Pierce, a University of Minnesota American studies professor.

Removing race-based admissions policies from the University of California  system had “disastrous effects,” she said.

In July 1995, the University of California Board of Regents  eliminated affirmative action in admissions.  Shortly after, Proposition 209 eliminated affirmative action from all public hiring and admissions processes in California. 

Though both policies didn’t take effect until fall 1998, the University of California’s applicant pool changed almost immediately.

In 1996 and 1997, the total number of applicants to the UC system rose while applications from students of color fell. When the policy went into effect, fewer students of color were admitted.

Declines were sharpest on the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, where admission is most selective. Between 1995 and 1999, the number of students of color at each school dropped by more than 50 percent.

“I can imagine that is precisely what would happen at many places that use affirmative action,” Pierce said, “that we would go backwards in terms of the percentages.”

One of many factors

The University of Minnesota emphasizes diversity as an institutional value and has affirmative action policies in place for both admissions and hiring.

The University has specific recruitment efforts to target students of color, Hernandez said, including admissions counselors who work specifically with different ethnic groups.

According to University data, more than 80 percent of undergraduate students enrolled on the Twin Cities campus in fall 2012 are white.

Pierce said the admissions policies at issue in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin are more complicated than they appear.

Because Fisher didn’t graduate with the class ranking to be admitted automatically, a range of other factors in her application were considered.

At the same time, the University of Texas admissions process is attempting to create a student body with a diverse range of skills and abilities, Pierce said.

“The story keeps getting told as if race is the only factor, and that’s not true,” she said, “it’s much more complicated than that.”

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