Supreme Court to examine affirmative action policies

by Caitlyn Starkey

The Supreme Court is reexamining the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions. Affirmative action allows higher education institutions to consider racial and ethnic backgrounds as a part of their application.

The issue came into the news recently when the Supreme Court announced on Feb. 21 that it would hear Fisher v. University of Texas. Two white female students, Abigail Fisher and Rachel Michalewicz, claim they were not admitted into the University of Texas in 2008 because they are not from a racial minority. Essentially the students claim that the University of Texas discriminated against them.

The issue of affirmative action debates whether a particular race or ethnic background should have additional opportunities during the college admissions process. Yet because the case involves race, the evidence will have to be clear and compelling.

According to the Pacific Legal Foundation, “This case asks whether the admissions policies and procedures at the University of Texas at Austin which grant preferences to students of certain races and ethnic backgrounds violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

The issue of affirmative action is not new to the Supreme Court or the University of Texas. In 2003, Grutter v. Bollinger allowed college admissions departments to consider race or ethnic background as part of a holistic review of applicants. However, admissions offices are to keep their criteria of race as neutral as possible.

“The precedent has to be holistic evaluation,” said Kathy Lee, Whitworth professor of political science. “Sandra Day O’Connor used it in a case eight years ago with the University of Michigan law school. That was a 5-4 decision. The court upheld the University of Michigan law school’s consideration of race as one of many factors in admissions. Stressing again, having a critical mass of minority students.”

After the 2003 decision, the University of Texas added race as a factor to its holistic review as a means to create a diverse student body.

“University of Michigan undergraduate admissions policy allows for race to be one of several considerations in admissions,” said Larry Burnley, professor of history and assistant vice president of diversity/intercultural relations at Whitworth, speaking from an academic standpoint. “The argument has been that institutions, particularly of higher education stretch that decision and went beyond the intended limits of how race can be used.”

Greg Orwig, acting vice president of admissions and financial aid, explained that the University of Texas admits student through the top 10 percent rule as well as a holistic review. The state of Texas guarantees any student in Texas who graduates in the top 10 percent of their class admission into at least one state university. That practice is known as the top 10 percent rule and is considered race neutral, for the student’s demographic information is not considered. However, those who do not graduate in the top 10 percent of their class are still considered on a more holistic scale, looking at GPA, SAT score and other factors including demographic information.

“The State of Texas’ top 10 percent rule drives most of the university’s admissions,” according to a press release by the University of Texas. “However, it is vital for the university to weigh a multitude of factors when making admissions decisions about the balance of students who will make up each entering class. We must have the flexibility to consider each applicant’s unique experiences and background so we can provide the best environment in which to educate and train the students who will be our nation’s future leaders.”

Whitworth admissions acknowledges that it does look at race and demographic information when reviewing an applicant’s file.

“We believe that serving students from diverse backgrounds and equipping all students to be multicultural and global leaders promotes our mission,” Orwig said.

With a smaller pool of applicants and a smaller university, it can be easier to look at each prospective student on a holistic level, Orwig said. That is a luxury the University of Texas may not have.

“Personally, I feel that’s really problematic because I don’t think we have evened the playing field after years, decades, centuries of what I could call affirmative action for majority population, for whites in this country,” said Burnley, who is a proponent of affirmative action. “The privilege is in terms of access. Policies and practices that have benefited whites in this countries. Males, women have also been disproportionately disadvantaged in this country up to a certain point in time. Has resulted in the kind of gaps of achievement that we see and other disparities that we see.”

Contact Caitlyn Starkey at

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