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Supreme Court case on use of race in admissions could be landmark

The University of Texas at Austin admits some students based on a process that includes race as one factor – even though the school is already racially diverse. The Supreme Court will consider whether that process is justified.

By Staff writer / October 9, 2012

In this Thursday, Sept. 27, photo, students walk through the University of Texas at Austin campus.

Eric Gay/AP

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WASHINGTON

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday is set to take up a potential landmark case examining whether a public university may use race as a factor to select new students, even after the university has achieved significant student diversity using race-neutral admissions methods.

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The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, embroils the high court in a contentious debate that divides the country and the Supreme Court itself.

The case has prompted the filing of 73 friend-of-the-court briefs from military leaders, major US businesses, 14 states, a group of senators, civil rights groups, education organizations, and a collection of basketball coaches – all urging the justices to uphold the use of race in college admissions.

On the other side, 17 friend-of-the-court briefs were filed by an array of conservative public interest organizations and groups of scholars.

At issue is when it is appropriate to use ethnicity or skin color to boost enrollment by minority students at a highly selective university.

The University of Texas (UT) at Austin uses a race-neutral mechanism to select 75 percent of its entering freshman class. The process yields class-wide minority enrollment of roughly 20 percent, making it among the most diverse of the nation’s elite universities.

Nonetheless, admissions officials also rely on a second selection process to pick the remaining 25 percent of students. That process includes race as a selection criterion among several other factors.

The question in the case is whether under those circumstances the University of Texas’ use of race is justified.

The race-conscious plan is being challenged by a white student, Abigail Fisher, who claims she was denied admission to UT so that African-American and Latino students, who she says were less qualified, could be admitted.

Ms. Fisher’s lawyers argue that the school engaged in government-sponsored racial discrimination in violation of Fisher’s constitutional right to equal protection.

“UT should not be permitted to employ gratuitous racial preferences when a race-neutral policy has resulted in over one-fifth of university entrants being African-American or Hispanic,” Washington lawyer Bert Rein wrote in his brief on behalf of Fisher.

Lawyers for the university deny that school officials engage in racial discrimination. They say consideration of a student’s race is part of a holistic review process that also considers leadership potential, extracurricular activities, work experience, community service, and various components of socioeconomic status.

Consideration of race helps admissions officers understand prospective students in their totality, but race alone does not decide the final outcome, they say.

"Consistent with the holistic and modest way in which race is considered, it is impossible to tell whether an applicant’s race was a tipping factor for any given admit,” Washington lawyer Gregory Garre wrote in his brief on behalf of the university.

Under Supreme Court precedents, officials who use race as a criterion to distribute government benefits (like admission to a highly selective state university) must demonstrate that the use of race is necessary to advance a compelling interest. They must also prove that the means used to achieve that interest were narrowly tailored.

Since the mid-1990s, Texas state law has required the university to admit the top 8 to 10 percent of graduates at each high school in the state. The admissions program was designed to create a race-neutral means to foster a diverse student body at UT.

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