Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

On the Case: The Controversial and Influential Affirmative Action Case Fisher V. University of Texas at Austin Could Be Decided as Early as February

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

On the Case: The Controversial and Influential Affirmative Action Case Fisher V. University of Texas at Austin Could Be Decided as Early as February

Article excerpt


The case of Abigail Fisher, a Texas woman who sued the state's flagship university, the University of Texas at Austin, for racial discrimination in its admissions process, continues to wind its way through federal court.

Last November, a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin after the case was remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court in June. In a 7-1 ruling, the nation's highest court decided that the lower court failed to apply "strict scrutiny" to the university's admissions process and that race should only be a factor in admissions to aid in diversity only if "available, workable, race-neutral alternatives do not suffice." The justices sent the case back to the lower court to apply that standard.

It is unclear as to when a ruling is expected, but it could come as early as February.

The outcome of the case could have far-reaching implications for colleges and universities throughout the country that use a race-conscious admissions process. While Fisher's name is listed as the plaintiff, at its core, the case examines the inclusion of race in the process of holistic review, which selective colleges and universities use to assess applicants.

Man behind the case

Edward Blum had been searching for someone like Fisher. The founder and sole employee of the Project on Fair Representation, which he founded in 2005, Blum had put up a website looking for White students who thought they had been denied admission to UT because they were White. Fisher's father, Richard, contacted Blum in 2008 and made his daughter's case.

Though Fisher had a 3.59 GPA, it was not enough to put her in the top 10 percent at her suburban Houston high school, which, under state law, would have garnered her automatic admission to UT. According to court documents, Fisher's SAT score of 1180 out of 1600 was above that year's national average; she was an accomplished cellist, had participated in mathematics competitions and volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. But the spots for students like Fisher were limited--just 841 remained after the top 10 percent-ers claimed theirs.

Fisher's application was assessed based on a second set of criteria. The "academic index" was based on GPA and SAT; the second set was based on a "personal achievement index." That index is based on two essays and a personal achievement score, which came down to the consideration of six factors that are equally weighted: leadership potential, extracurricular activities, awards and honors, work experience, community service and "special circumstances." Race is one of seven factors included under "special circumstances"; others include socioeconomic status or whether the student was raised by a single parent.

The university has repeatedly argued that including race in this second set of admissions criteria is necessary to ensure diversity. Administrators have also argued that earned the maximum personal achievement index score, she still would not have been admitted. Attorneys also argued that Fisher does not have standing in the case because she has already graduated from Louisiana State University and secured a job at a finance firm. "[he only harm she could point to was not being able to tap into the UT alumni network and possibly getting a better first job. The only remedy she sought was return of the $100 application fee.

The university offered provisional admission to 47 students with lower admissions scores than Fisher--42 were White, five were Black or Hispanic However, 168 Black or Hispanic students who had admissions scores identical to or higher than Fisher's were denied provisional admission. But, the narrative around Fisher's case is that race was the sole reason for her rejection.

Fisher seemed to make a compelling case, tapping into a level of resentment felt by some that Whites were being discriminated against based on the very laws passed to alleviate discrimination against people of color--namely African-Americans. …

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