AUSTIN, Tex. – The potentially landmark decision on the use of race in admissions at the University of Texas at Austin that everybody expected the Supreme Court to hand down this week hit Monday, but since the decision was less partisan and sweeping than many here expected, it was met with more of a whimper than a bang.
There were no major protests or rallies on campus. No occupations of campus buildings. No marches on the statehouse just a few blocks away. The main quads were mostly empty by late afternoon.
Just like their counterparts on the national stage, students involved on both sides of the issue here expressed some happiness with the ruling. Students who support the consideration of race in admissions were pleased that the justices did not strike down the university’s current policies and seemed to uphold the idea that a diverse student body was important.
“It is certainly a victory,” said Jennifer Tran, a fourth-year government and sociology major involved in a group called “We Support UT” that advocates in favor of the university’s holistic admissions process.
Students opposed to the consideration of race in admissions said they viewed the decision as the court saying the university must exhaust non-racial methods before considering race in admissions. "In the majority opinion Justice Kennedy stated that it should be remanded back to the fifth circuit to determine whether there are alternative system of admission that are race neutral," said Danny Zeng, a rising fourth-year student and president of the university's chapter of the College Republicans. "We see great hope in that the decision opens up the prospect that the court will decide that the UT top-10-percent admissions policy goes far enough in advancing that goal in a race-neutral way."
Zeng said he thought the lower court -- and eventually the Supreme Court if it got that far -- would decide that diversity could be achieved in race-neutral ways that would also foster more socioeconomic diversity. He also praised Justice Clarence Thomas' concurring opinion in the case, saying the court should prohibit all consideration of race in admissions.
While those already involved in the case had thoughts on the matter, most students simply went about their daily routines, studying and hanging out with friends. Freshmen and their parents on campus for orientations continued to go about their program unfazed. Many students said they were aware that the court had reached a decision but noted that it wasn’t as impactful as they were expecting. Others weren’t even aware of the decision or the details of the case.
Part of the muted reaction was chalked up to the complicated decision issued by the court, with a 7-1 majority saying the lower court needed to apply a higher level of scrutiny to the university’s admissions policies to ensure that the use of race was narrowly tailored to meet the interest of fostering a diverse student body. Many students here said they expected the court to make a more definitive ruling, either limiting the practice of using race in admissions or upholding it.
Even students highly involved in campus discussions about the court case found the ruling confusing. “I wasn’t sure if we should rejoice or not,” said Andy Escobar, a third-year student majoring in radio-television-film and Latin American studies, another member of the “We Support UT” group. “We saw the decision and were like, ‘What is all this jargon?’ “
Several students involved in campus diversity efforts, like Escobar, said the decision prompted a sigh of relief. They joined many national pro-affirmative action groups in claiming the decision as a temporary victory, citing the fact that the court upheld the idea that fostering diversity in higher education is a compelling state interest.
“A lot could happen by the time the case goes back to the court,” Tran said.
Diversity groups said one positive aspect of the decision is that it keeps the discussion of affirmative action and university admissions in the forefront of public discourse, giving them an opportunity to reach more students. “Our society has a weird relationship with race where we either don’t want to talk about it at all or it’s all we talk about,” Tran said. “This might give us an opportunity to get to a healthier place.”
Zeng said he did not think several more years of discussion on the issue would change the discussion around race in admissions on the university's campus. "Most of our peers are not confrontational. They don't like to talk about sensitive issues," he said. "We think the majority of students at UT are on our side, they're just afraid to be explicit about their opinion because there are a lot of vocal people on the other side."