More than a half-century after the Supreme Court ordered the
University of Texas to admit a black man to its law school, the
sprawling live-oak-and-limestone campus is again the site of a
monumental battle over the use of race in university admissions.
But this time the challenge comes from a white woman. Abigail
Fisher says the color of her skin cost her a spot in the 2008
freshman class at the university she had longed to attend since she
was a child.
Under the banner of racial diversity, Ms. Fisher contends, the UT
admissions process -- which considers race as a factor in choosing
one quarter of its students -- unfairly favors African Americans and
Hispanics at the expense of whites and Asian Americans.
"If any state action should respect racial equality, it is
university admission," Ms. Fisher said in her brief to the Supreme
Court. "Selecting those who will benefit from the limited places
available at universities has enormous consequences."
Enormous, too, could be the consequences of Ms. Fisher's case for
the nation's selective universities, public and private. If the
court rules broadly, college administrators could be barred from
considering race in admissions.
Arguments in the case began today, and the decision could be one
of the most important and revealing of the Supreme Court's term.
The court since 1978 has recognized that promoting diversity on
the nation's campuses allows a limited consideration of race that
normally the Constitution would not countenance.
It has imposed restrictions -- no quotas, no racial balancing to
match demographics, no automatic boost for an applicant because of
minority status. But as recently as 2003, the justices reaffirmed
the view that "student body diversity is a compelling state interest
that can justify the use of race in university admissions."
But the court has changed dramatically since then, with a
conservative majority now highly skeptical of -- even hostile to --
racial preferences. The justice most likely to decide the case for
the divided court -- Anthony M. Kennedy -- has agreed in principle
that diversity is important but has never voted to approve an
affirmative action plan.
At the same time, the national appeal of "diversity" -- the goal
of producing a legion of future leaders that matches the nation's
changing complexion -- has become so ingrained that more than 70
amicus briefs have been filed on UT's behalf.
Beyond traditional civil rights organizations, the support comes
from military leaders, academics, psychologists, the business
community and professional athletes. More than half of the Fortune
100 companies -- American Express, Southwest Airlines, Halliburton
among them -- urge the justices to reaffirm the significance of
diversity in higher education.
The Obama administration told the court that nothing less than
the country's future depends on a "well-qualified and diverse pool"
of college graduates "who possess the understanding of diversity
that is necessary to govern and defend the United States."
UT President William Powers said that his admissions policies hew
carefully to the guidelines of the Supreme Court's 2003 decision and
that applicants of every race may benefit from the individualized
The only goal, he said in an interview, is to create a university
environment where students are "learning and drawing from and
sharing their experiences with people from different backgrounds,
and that's diversity writ large -- geographic diversity,
intellectual diversity, ethnic diversity, religious diversity."
"We're trying to prepare them educationally for the world they're
going to live in," he said.
During class changes on the 52,000-student campus, UT's diversity
is on full display
The sidewalks and bike paths at UT are filled with students of
every ethnic group and hue -- hipster plaid and mohawks, Greek-
letter T-shirts and Longhorn burnt orange, sundresses and cowboy