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Affirmative Action Revisited

March 1, 2012

Meaghan Sheehan ’13

Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case on race-conscious admissions at public colleges and institutions; it is the first affirmative action case they have agreed to hear since 2003. In fact, the last case they heard was the same one in which they gave such permission to public institutions to take account of race in the admission process. In Grutter v. Bollinger, it was ruled that public colleges and universities could not increase minority admissions through the use of a point system, but could take race into account to increase academic diversity. Justice O’Connor said in her majority opinion that in 25 years, “the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” However, as a recent New York Times article has pointed out, this new case could bring affirmative action down soon after it was built up.

In this new case, Fisher v. University of Texas, Abigail Fisher was denied entry to the University of Texas. The state of Texas has a policy which automatically accepts the top 10% of high school seniors to its public universities, regardless of race, sending the rest through an application process that does consider race. Abigail, a white student, just missed being in this 10%. Her argument is that they can’t have it both ways; it should be either race-neutral or race-conscious, but not both. Aside from abolishment of this policy, Fisher has only asked for “$100 in damages–her application fee and housing deposit.” Should Fisher win the case, it is thought that minority admissions will drop and many public colleges and universities would “almost instantly become whiter and more Asian, and less black and Hispanic.” There is also the concern that the crumbling of diversity protection in higher education would also lead to problems of “societal commitment to it in other arenas, notably private hiring and promotion.” Considering the amount of cases soon to be heard by this conservative set of justices (e.g. Obama’s healthcare plan, immigration, same-sex marriage), there are concerns that go beyond this case.

It is the belief of many legal experts that by simply agreeing to hear the case, the justices have “signaled interest in rolling back the type of race-based admissions the high court approved in 2003.” As Bruce Poch, former dean of admissions at Pomona College, has said, “America has always been a place where race has been a part of one’s experience.” Many then ask why there has not been more consideration for an affirmative action plan which considers socio-economic status rather than race, saying that this is the new minority worth backing.

In an interesting response to the possible overturn of affirmative action, several points are made in favor of universities. While the “five conservative justices in the majority [might do] away with racial preferences in higher education,” there is still the hope and expectation that colleges and universities will find a way around it. While it might seem profitable to admit the students from the upper class, and intelligent to admit the students with the highest SAT scores, it is most beneficial in the long-run to admit the students that will help create the most intellectually stimulating environment. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg explains the point well, by putting his faith in the universities to make the right decision should the conservative majority of the Supreme Court overturn the 2003 decision: “Universities [were], after all, open for business before the Constitution was drafted…colleges are known for their creative interpretation of the classics – whether they are by Shakespeare or the chief justice.”

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