Supreme Court sends affirmative action case back to lower courts

A Supreme Court ruling could affect affirmative action at the U, nationwide.
June 26, 2013

As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court sending a significant affirmative action case back to the lower courts Monday, the University of Minnesota will re-evaluate its own admissions policies.

The 7-1 decision on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin limited the use of race-based college admissions and ordered the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to use the highest level of scrutiny on admissions programs that employ racial categories.

In the case, native Texan Abigail Fisher claimed she was denied admission to the university in 2008 because she is white. She claimed the university’s policy of considering race in admissions violated the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

The ruling said when examining race-based admissions policies, courts must decide that “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.”

University of Minnesota interim General Counsel William Donohue said the Court’s decision was unexpected, since many thought the decision would be close but decided one way or the other.

Although the decision doesn’t affect current affirmative action policies, the University’s Office of the General Counsel will work with administrators and the Office of Admissions to ensure its policies are in line with current standards, Donohue said.

University officials will make sure its admissions policies pass strict scrutiny, meaning that all race-based policies are narrowly tailored to achieve a diverse student body, Donohue said.

The University’s admissions process considers both primary and secondary factors. Primary factors include high school GPA and standardized test scores, while secondary factors include less measurable criteria like military service, volunteer work, race and gender.

“No single factor in our admissions decision review is a deciding factor,” said Rachelle Hernandez, director of admissions, adding that academic factors receive the highest emphasis.

 

After the review is complete, the OGC will communicate its key findings with administrators whose work could be directly affected by the Supreme Court decision, University President Eric Kaler said in a statement Monday.

“We would expect that [re-evaluation] is what will be happening across the country,” Hernandez said.

The University currently follows the standard set by the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s use of affirmative action in admissions.

When accepting the case again, the Supreme Court said the appeals court must use the standard of scrutiny decided in Grutter.

“[The decision] provides stability to the legal analysis of affirmative action,” Donohue said. “In that way, it’s a good thing.”

When Fisher applied to the University of Texas at Austin, the school filled three-quarters of its freshmen class by automatically accepting Texas high school students who ranked in the top 10 percent of their graduating class. For the remaining quarter, other factors — including race —were considered in the admissions process.

The University of Texas at Austin currently accepts Texas students from the top 8 percent of their graduating high school classes automatically. In 2011, more than 80 percent of black and Latino students admitted to the university were automatically accepted.

As a land grant institution, Hernandez said the University of Minnesota has an obligation to ensure student enrollment represents a cross section of the state.

“We want students to become future leaders in their professions,” she said, “and diversity is an important factor of that.”

 

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