“Diversity” is the watchword of higher education these days.
Universities have often used race-based affirmative action policies to balance the representation of racial and ethnic minorities and the practice has been considered controversial ever since colleges first put them into place. While precedents on affirmative action have been on the books since the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a new challenge to affirmative action policies today in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.
A common criticism of race-conscious affirmative action is that the practice is itself racist, and that “the best way to stop discrimination on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
The petitioner in the affirmative action case, Abigail Fisher, applied to the University of Texas in 2008 and was rejected. Under the university’s “Top Ten Policy,” high school students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their class are automatically offered admission. About 80 percent of each incoming freshman class is admitted under the Top Ten Policy. Fisher did not qualify for admission under these circumstances. The remainder of spots in each class is filled after consideration of each applicant’s specific qualities such as his or her past academic achievement, application essays, community service and racial or ethnic background.
The latter is the aspect of the policy that Fisher is challenging, alleging that she was discriminated against because of her race. However, the university maintains Fisher would not have been admitted even if she had not been white. The plaintiff hopes that in this case the Supreme Court will decide to “completely take race out of the issue in terms of admissions and that everyone will be able to get into any school that they want no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it.”
It seems that opponents of affirmative action do not grasp the nature of college admissions: it is an inclusionary process rather than exclusionary.
Because there are multiple applicants in an admissions pool for each available spot, admissions officials must choose which qualities and experiences they want to include in the student body rather than traits they want to exclude. In choosing these traits, applicants are considered individually on a case-by-case basis and not in comparison to other applicants. In this way universities can customize and fine-tune the traits of their student body to emphasize diversity – without which the overall experience of attending a university would suffer.
Denying admission to candidates with a history of low test scores is not the primary goal of an admissions board. Rather, they place a higher premium on a candidate’s leadership experience or academic excellence. Including favorable traits – such as diversity of race, religion, socioeconomic status and life experience – is more desirable than excluding candidates based on individual differences.
In considering Fisher, the Court may decide to uphold the race-conscious plan the University of Texas uses to fill the 20 percent of slots remaining for those students not in the top 10 percent of their high school class as consistent with their ruling in Grutter v Bollinger, or it may strike it down, or it may overrule the Grutter precedent entirely, striking down most other race-conscious admissions programs across the country.
An applicant is much more than the sum of their experiences and abilities: college admissions are as much about potential, as past achievement.
There’s something to be said for irony in this case, as the plaintiff, a white woman, is challenging a policy that she says discriminates against her. Though the original intention behind these policies was to ensure equal treatment and opportunities for racial and ethnic minorities and sex was not originally included under the umbrella of groups needing affirmative action programs, white women have been the primary beneficiaries of such policies.
Fisher recently graduated from Louisiana State University, making this whole controversy rather moot, at least in her own case.
Written by Savannah Thomas
Header: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times. All opinions expressed in our editorials belong solely to that of the author and do not reflect the views of Feminspire or its staff as a whole.