On October 10, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Fisher v. Texas, a high-profile affirmative action case with the potential to outlaw the use of race in college admissions decisions for both public and private institutions.
The plaintiff is one Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied admission to the University of Texas in 2008. UT automatically accepts students in the top 10% of their high school class, regardless of race, a policy that has drastically increased the percent of minority students. Although Fisher was just outside this cutoff, she claimed that her many qualifications – high GPA (a 3.59) and SAT score (1180, well above the 25th percentile for UT), participation in orchestra and math competitions, involvement with Habitat for Humanity, and legacy at the school – were more than that of many minority students who were able to gain admission.
Fisher alleged that the university’s admissions policies that give an advantage to minorities on the basis of race are unconstitutional under the Constitution’s guarantee of “equal protection under the law.” Texas argued that its policies are valid because the program is “narrowly tailored” to meet the “compelling state interest” of diversity, the standard established in the precedent case Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). Grutter was a landmark ruling that held that a race-conscious admissions process that favors “underrepresented minority groups,” but also takes into account a variety of other factors, is constitutional, seeing as it is not a quota system.
Although both of the lower courts upheld Texas’ admissions policy, the Supreme Court could take a different stance. With Justice Elena Kagan, generally considered part of the liberal wing of the court, recused from the case for prior involvement as solicitor general, and the court lineup more conservative than 2003, the Supreme Court seems primed to make a landmark ruling outlawing the use of race in admission decisions.
The oral arguments illustrated a number of flaws in the framework of the Grutter ruling that, in my opinion, can be resolved only by either completely outlawing the use of race in college admissions or by giving complete discretion to college admissions committees on how to make their college campus diverse (with the exception of quotas). For example, Grutter held that race-conscious admissions policies would only be necessary until a “critical mass” of minority students was reached. Yet, there is no objective measure of critical mass, so it will never be clear when schools reach the point where racial preferences would be unnecessary in producing a diverse college campus. If an objective measure is created, isn’t that the same thing as a quota?
No simple solution exists to resolve the many complex issues associated with affirmative action. There are pros and cons to each side; people are going to either be either aided or negatively affected whichever way the court rules. In my opinion, banning the use of race in college admissions is the solution that is easiest to reconcile with the Constitution. However, the easiest solution is not always the best one. I believe the Supreme Court should attempt the more complex legal compromise, the one that could grant opportunity to disadvantaged students and create a more ideal college campus: Upholding affirmative action. The fact of the matter remains: there are still wide achievement gaps between races, and diversity has been stated by the government to be a “compelling state interest.” If only for those reasons, I think it is necessary that colleges still be allowed to consider race in their admissions decisions. Of course, certain students like Abigail Fisher will face disappointment, but it is a matter of making small sacrifices today for the greater, long-term good. There is always going to be some pain in the struggle to create a better (in this case, more educated) nation. I hope the Supreme Court does not adhere to a strict interpretation of the Constitution, but rather makes the slightly flawed decision, one that will help America prosper in the long run.
[Image Credit: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/09/us/supreme-court-to-hear-case-on-affirmative-action.html]