UT-Austin president and admissions director discuss the Fisher decision
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On Tuesday, William C. Powers Jr., president of the University of Texas at Austin, and Kedra Ishop, vice provost and director of admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, took time to answer a few questions about the Supreme Court's decision Monday in Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin. The court's decision sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, saying the lower court erred in not applying "strict scrutiny" when it reviewed the university's consideration of race in admissions, the standard established in a 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger.
William C. Powers Jr., president of the University of Texas at Austin and a law professor:
What was your reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision Monday?
The most important feature of the case when we saw the decision is it leaves the Bakke-Grutter framework in place. We’re happy about that. That’s good for us and it’s good for diversity for higher education around the country. And our particular program that was being challenged in this litigation will still be in place. The students that were admitted for this fall, this has no effect on them.
We think the record will show that we met the strict scrutiny standard, that’s the way we litigated the case, and we’ll go forward.
What’s your reaction to others claiming that this is also a victory for the opposite side of the case?
We’re litigants on opposing sides of the case, so I’ll leave that for others to comment on. I will say the court did not hold that there has to be race-neutral admissions. Strict scrutiny has historically been the standard in race cases, so all that’s left in place.
Does the university have to rethink how it approaches its litigation in the wake of the decision?
We originally litigated this with an understanding that it’s a strict scrutiny standard. We put this program together after Grutter. We designed it to meet Grutter. We took Grutter seriously. Grutter says that you can use race and ethnicity in admissions, but it has to be narrowly tailored for an important educational goal. And you can’t just say "We want to do it"; you have to demonstrate and justify doing it. We did studies of make-up of classrooms, make-up of programs. We did a great deal to convince ourselves that this was appropriate under Grutter. And we litigated the case under the strict scrutiny standard.
The goals of having a diverse student population and diverse educational experience are central to the university admissions process. How close is the university to having the student body that you want it to have?
Our goal is to have an educational environment for all of our students, including non-minority students, that prepares them to work across a number of lines that their more homogeneous high school or local experience may or may not have prepared them for. When people go out into the work force, they are going to work with people from other countries, they are going to work with people from very different backgrounds form their own – ethnically, geographically, culturally, politically. So we want an educational environment in the classroom and outside the classroom that prepares them for that.
That doesn’t mean that every single experience on campus has to be a diverse one. It’s not a matter of numbers, it’s a matter of enough experience, whether there are enough programs inside and outside the classroom. We’re not there yet.
With a nebulous goal like diversity, what kind of evidence can the university muster to show it is accomplishing that goal through the use of the admissions process?
We look at not just what are the aggregate diversity numbers, but what do certain programs reflect, what do certain classrooms look like. We did that as Grutter required before we did the program. We’re constantly reviewing that. We have done this background justification work.
Do you think the university’s involvement in this case and the broader discussion about admissions in higher education has been good or bad for the institution?
One doesn’t look to be a defendant in litigation. We’ll be happy when this issue is resolved.
I think the University of Texas has been seen as working hard to preserve diversity in higher education and on our campus. I think that is a position we want to be in; I think that has been positive.
I think we’ve also been creative – the state’s been creative – in looking for a whole variety of ways to diversify the campus. We have outreach centers, admission centers throughout the state. We don’t just sit back and wait for applications. And this isn’t just for minority students, but students from rural areas, first-generation students, students from every part of the state. I think that’s a positive.
During my lifetime race and ethnicity and civil rights have been at the core of the American experience. The workplace is hugely more diverse than it was 50 years ago. I think there are a number of contributing factors: people who have been involved in civil rights, the government, the private sector, the military, entertainment. But I do think higher education’s participation in its admissions processes and in diversifying its campuses over this period of time is a very significant and positive part of that story.
What we’re talking about in very careful narrowly tailored use of ethnicity, and that has been a very important part of that story of the progress that America has made in diversifying our way of life and workplace.
Kedra Ishop, vice provost and director of admissions at the University of Texas at Austin:
What does the Supreme Court's decision mean for how UT-Austin conducts its admissions process?
I think going into the case, when it went to the court, we jokingly said there were 17 possible decisions that could come down, ranging for the extremes to a lot of mud in the middle. This was one of those in the middle.
What it does in terms of the admissions process is allow us to continue moving forward with the status quo, which was not really an expected outcome. We kind of geared up to make shifts in one direction of another, but instead we’ll continue with our admissions process how it stands and how it stood.
How much has the noise surrounding this case affected your day-to-day operations? How many inquiries have you gotten from people about what it means for them or their son or daughter?
It has been rather quiet, thankfully. We were geared up and ready. Had there been a different decision, I think there would have been a different response, but as we look across the landscape of how others are interpreting this decision, I think everyone has been able to be pretty clear about its lack of impact on anything immediate.
In terms of students – we started orientations three or four weeks ago – there was some concern and some of those conversations, and we reiterated our message to the campus and our staff that at least for now until we have a decision everything is fine, and now that we have a decision everything continues to be fine.
Does the fact that the decision is not conclusive and the fact that there could be several more rounds of litigation frustrate this office’s efforts?
In the world of admissions, things are always up in the air. We’re in a dynamic environment where we’re responding to legislature that comes in every two years that could affect financial aid policy or any number of things. But this is a very large machine and it doesn’t move quickly.
How close are you to having the class – in terms of diversity – that you want to have?
We have a very diverse campus. I think we’ve achieved our diversity through a variety of tools and means. If we don’t have those tools and those means then we lose our diversity. We’re not pursuing a goal line that says once we’re there then we’ve accomplished what we wanted and we don’t need to do this any more. That’s a hard concept to wrap heads around. It’s not some number we’re pursuing. The diversity we accomplish is through the admissions process we deploy; sometimes it’s better than other times.
What do you say to the Fishers of the world who question the legitimacy of the process you use?
This admissions process was built specifically to meet the tenets of Grutter – that students are reviewed individually, that race and ethnicity could matter for someone, but not specifically for one race or another. I think the idea that you can value a student for everything that they bring to the table whoever they are, whatever the credentials are that they bring to the table, including race and ethnicity, is a hard one for people to believe. And it’s hard for them to believe that you’re not using one of those factors to say yes or no or rank someone higher.
But that’s how these holistic admission processes tend to work. Perhaps the court will better-define that or apply stricter mandates to that over time, but all of those pieces don’t allow for someone to get in strictly because they are “X” over someone else.
Is there a way to be more open and transparent about the admissions process that could head off some of the potential challenges in the future?
With a case like ours, it will always be the case, for as long as we have 35,000-plus applications and as long as the Legislature has said a portion of those students will get in automatically, that for everyone else there’s a competition. For everyone else – the 20,000 vying for those spaces – there are many more students who could be great students on this campus than we have space for. So there are very few conversations that can stem that passion and that disappointment around why a student would not get that space.
As long as there’s that competition and belief that I have to be here as opposed to there then we’re always going to face one thing or another.
I like to read the comments on stories. That’s what you have to address. You can’t address only the people who have the knowledge to understand the nuance, it’s what do the general masses understand about your process. That’s the challenge for transparency. It’s very difficult to explain the process in a 30-second sound bite.