This fall, the United States Supreme Court will consider the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, which asks whether that university’s use of affirmative action in admissions passes constitutional muster. I served on the legal team that defended the University of Michigan Law School admissions policy in Grutter v. Bollinger, where the Supreme Court held that fostering a racially diverse student body is a compelling state interest that colleges and universities can pursue in a narrowly tailored way. I believed that the Court correctly decided Grutter when I was helping to litigate the case, but I believe it even more firmly in my newer role as a law school faculty member.
For a number of technical reasons, it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court will treat Fisher as an occasion to revisit Grutter. If the Court does do so, however, then it should let Grutter stand. The reason is simple: The primary reason to leave Grutter alone is that the Court there got it exactly right.
Grutter recognized that having a diverse student body serves a variety of important educational objectives. One of those objectives can be described syllogistically: personal characteristics help determine our experiences; our experiences inform our thoughts and perspectives; therefore, having students with a wide array of personal qualities helps enrich the educational environment by infusing it with a rich variety of ideas and points of view. Of course, a diverse student body serves other educational goals as well, for example, by challenging stereotypes and building cross-cultural understanding. But the heart of the Grutter decision rests on an understanding of the unique value of learning in an environment where we encounter people whose characteristics, experiences, and perspectives differ from our own.
For many years, I have seen the benefits of having a diverse student body in one of the courses I teach — Legal Ethics. This seems unremarkable in light of the fact that the discussion of ethical matters tends to draw out the philosophical, religious, cultural, and experiential differences among the participants. It is therefore unsurprising that I have witnessed many lively exchanges in that class between students who brought dramatically contrasting orientations to the questions at hand.
Perhaps more surprising are the benefits of having a diverse student body in another course I teach — Evidence. In this class, students learn the principles that determine whether a document, object, or witness’s testimony will be admitted at trial for consideration by the jury. Evidence is what law students sometimes call a "rulesy" course and it does not put variations in individual identity, experience, perspective, or conscience on display in the same obvious way as a course on ethics. And, yet, in my evidence class those variations push their way to the surface repeatedly and unexpectedly.
Sometimes this results from an aspect of a student’s background that does not seem particularly significant or self-defining. Consider, for example, an incident that occurred when my evidence class was studying a doctrine that allows non-expert layperson witnesses to testify to their opinions on certain matters. The rules limit such testimony to the sorts of educated guesses we make in everyday life: How far is it from here to there? How fast was the car going? Is that person drunk?
To explore with my students our capacity to make such inferences based on our experiences, I conduct a simple experiment. I produce two unlabeled cups containing soft drinks and ask for a volunteer to take a sip from each and tell us which contains Coke and which Pepsi. Every year, almost all of the students in the class says they can do this; every year, the student who volunteers to try succeeds.
One year, however, my student volunteer did something unexpected. She came to the front of the class, glanced at the cups, and said confidently: "I can tell by the smell." She picked up one cup; sniffed it; and correctly declared that it contained the Pepsi. Her fellow students burst into applause. She explained that she had worked in a restaurant that served both products and that she had acquired this skill so she could help out on those occasions where the waitperson who had poured the beverages lost track of which was which.
This immediately led to an interesting debate: Was this student a layperson offering an educated guess based on her personal experience or an expert offering an informed opinion based on her specialized knowledge? For a variety of reasons, this distinction matters under the rules of evidence. This student had shown — much more clearly and memorably than I could have done by lecturing about it — that under some circumstances the distinction is very fine indeed, and perhaps even vanishes.
In many other instances, a more self-definitive characteristic that a student possesses has ended up shaping their contribution to the classroom discussion in a poignant and powerful way. I recall, for instance, one day when we were working through a problem that involves the hearsay doctrine. In very general terms, that doctrine prohibits witnesses from repeating things in court that were said outside of court. Students often find the doctrine maddeningly complicated.
Part of the doctrine’s complexity arises from the fact that it is subject to dozens of exceptions. This includes exceptions for statements that were made under stress or excitement and for statements that describe an event and were made while or right after the event was occurring. These exceptions rest in part on the assumption that statements made under these circumstances are typically less calculated and therefore more reliable.
We were discussing a scenario — based on an actual case — that presented the question of whether the tape of a phone call to a 911 operator should be admissible. In the tape, a woman who lived in an apartment building reported that several large dogs, owned by one of her neighbors, were attacking another neighbor in the hallway. The caller described the dogs, the people who owned them and were trying unsuccessfully to restrain them, and the location and severity of the attack. During the entire call, the woman remained in her apartment with the door closed.
I had taught this scenario for many years and the discussion consistently played out along the same lines. The students would recognize that the tape presented a hearsay problem. They would identify the exceptions discussed above as potentially applicable. And then they would spot a difficulty in applying those exceptions: because the woman listened to the commotion through her door and never left her apartment, she arguably did not have personal knowledge about the matters she was describing. This is how the discussion always had gone; this is how it always had ended.
On this occasion, however, a student raised his hand just as we were about to move on. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but I disagree with the conclusion. You’ve all wrongly assumed that you need to see something to have personal knowledge about it. This woman knew what her neighbor’s dogs sounded like. She could hear that they were attacking someone. She could recognize her neighbors’ voices. She could tell where the sounds were coming from. Granted, she didn’t see anything. But she certainly had personal knowledge of what was happening.”
The class sat in stunned silence. Of course, this student was right. He also happened — not incidentally — to be blind.
When the Supreme Court decided Grutter in 2003, race mattered. It shaped experience in myriad and unique ways. It informed perspectives, ideas, and opinions. It still does.
As a practicing lawyer, I have argued that institutions of higher education have a compelling interest to admit a diverse student body based upon legal principles and social science. As a faculty member, I now make the same argument based upon my experience. Indeed, I have come to believe that Grutter is wise and right in ways that I did not even understand when I was busy working on it.
I have seen the evidence.
Len Niehoff is professor from practice at the University of Michigan Law School and is chair of the higher education practice at Honigman, Miller, Schwartz & Cohn. The ideas expressed here are his own.
As the Supreme Court gets ready to review the consideration of race in admissions policies, instructors need to think about how to manage discussions of the issue -- both those that are planned and those that are unplanned.
Later this year, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas. Fisher will be the latest higher education affirmative action case argued before the Court. The timing is curious. Grutter was just decided in 2003. In it, the Supreme Court upheld a race-conscious admissions plan at the University of Michigan Law School. So why are we back here so soon? Why is the Supreme Court set to review a race-conscious admissions plan that aligns so closely with Grutter precedent? The answer to those questions likely lies in Grutter itself, specifically the dissent of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Justice Kennedy lodged strong objections to the majority’s scrutiny of the admissions plan reviewed in Grutter. The judicial standard for reviewing race-conscious apportionments of public benefits is strict scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny, race-conscious admissions plans at public institutions like the University of Michigan are constitutional only if "they are narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest." So the standard essentially has two exacting requirements: a compelling public interest and a narrowly tailored means of furthering it. One without the other renders the plan in question unconstitutional.
Kennedy has twice affirmed his view that diversity in public education can amount to a compelling public interest. In his Grutter dissent, he references "a university’s compelling interest in a diverse student body." He later extended this view to the K-12 level in Parents Involved in Community Schools. In that case, Kennedy joined with the conservative wing in striking down race-conscious school assignment plans in Louisville and Seattle. But while the other conservative justices declined to deem diversity in K-12 a compelling interest, Kennedy asserted, "Diversity, depending on its meaning and definition, is a compelling educational goal." So, for Kennedy, the race-conscious plans in both Grutter and Parents Involved suffered not from lack of compelling interests, but from lack of narrow tailoring. It is worth nothing that because of the vote split among the justices in Parents Involved, Kennedy’s concurrence is the controlling decision.
But it is his Grutter dissent that gives us the best clue as to why the Supreme Court agreed to hear Fisher. The four dissenting justices were deeply troubled by the degree of deference afforded Michigan Law. Justice Kennedy was so troubled that he wrote a dissent, separate from the one he signed onto with the other conservative justices. He took particular issue with the concept of "critical mass." Critical mass was defined as "a number that encourages underrepresented minority students to participate in the classroom and not feel isolated." Michigan Law argued that critical mass was central to achieving its educational objectives, but it did not identify numbers or percentages that signified having reached such mass. (Critical mass is an important subtext in Fisher because Texas is arguing that the purpose of its consideration of race in admissions is to cure woefully inadequate classroom diversity.) The majority accepted the law school’s definition of critical mass, and deemed constitutional the manners in which it is sought in the admissions process.
The dissenting justices, however, felt that the goal of critical mass was a farce — or as Justice Kennedy termed it, "a delusion." They felt that the admissions plan was actually an unconstitutional quota system. Justice Kennedy, in his separate dissent, argued that certain racial demographic consistencies and correlations demonstrated that the law school sought "numerical goals indistinguishable from quotas." (For example, the dissent highlighted data showing close correlations between the percentages of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans in the applicant pool and their corresponding percentages among those admitted.) And while he accepted Michigan Law’s assertion that its educational objectives required diverse students, he felt that the deferential review of the law school’s methods of achieving diversity fell far short of strict scrutiny.
Judicial deference to educational decisions is about as old as U.S. education itself. Often termed academic abstention, courts have historically been loath to question the judgments of professional educators. Thus, colleges and universities enjoy broad autonomy in making decisions deemed "academic" in nature, including those relating to admissions.
But it is on this issue of deference where we could see Fisher diverge from Grutter. The Grutter majority concluded, based on the law school’s descriptions, that the race-conscious admissions process bore "the hallmarks of a narrowly tailored plan." The dissenting justices, however, felt that strict scrutiny required the law school to not only describe the process, but to also provide explanations for outcomes they found suspicious. In addition to the consistencies and correlations Kennedy found troubling, the dissenters took issue with what they deemed differential treatment of different racial groups. They wanted the law school to explain why black applicants were admitted at higher rates than Hispanic applicants. Essentially, they questioned why critical mass seemed to mean different things for different groups. And they chastised the majority for its "unprecedented" deference.
The Supreme Court is a little more conservative today than when Grutter was decided. And given the ideological split, Justice Kennedy will likely cast the deciding vote in Fisher. It is safe to assume that the University of Texas will carry a heavier burden in showing that its consideration of race in admissions passes constitutional muster. But more significantly, Fisher will allow the conservative wing of the Supreme Court to re-do Grutter in a less deferential image.
The district court judge who originally dismissed the Fisher case remarked, "as long as Grutter remains good law, UT’s current admissions program remains constitutional." We will soon see to what extent Grutter will remain good law. And more importantly, we will soon know to what extent, and under what circumstances, public colleges and universities can pursue compelling educational objectives through the use of race-conscious admissions practices.
Aaron N. Taylor is a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheEdLawProf.