A Commitment to Strong Policies
The Supreme Court's ruling in the Fisher case preserves existing precedent, but it also gives colleges and universities much more specific insight into what it looks like to align with the court's framework and expectations, writes Terri Taylor.
The higher education community breathed a sigh of relief today as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas at Austin's race-conscious holistic-review admissions policy is lawful under federal constitutional principles. The decision ended nearly a decade of litigation for UT and clearly preserved existing precedent that allows institutions with an interest in the educational benefits of diversity to include the limited consideration of race in enrollment decisions.
So we're done with this stuff, right?
Not exactly. We should celebrate the decision today but be prepared to roll up our sleeves and get back to work tomorrow. Here are a few reasons why:
- The decision does preserve existing precedent, but it gives much more specific insight into what it looks like to align with the court's framework and expectations. It's a bit like the court has for decades instructed institutions to wear clothes -- but now they've made clear that those clothes should be a three-piece suit. Specifically, the court noted that UT was able to show a clear set of diversity-related goals and objectives, a deliberate decision-making process that involved university’s highest leadership and stakeholders across the campus, and an impressive arsenal of qualitative and quantitative evidence about the negative impact of its years of solely race-neutral admissions. Though lockstep adaptation of UT's effort is not likely to be an expectation by future courts, all institutions that consider race in enrollment decisions should prepare themselves to make their own case for carrying the "heavy burden" of passing court scrutiny of these practices, informed by the kind of case UT presented.
- The court was very clear that institutions have an "ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies" (emphasis added). For UT specifically, the court instructed, "The university must continue to use [its] data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary." Notably, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not repeat Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's 2003 prediction in Grutter v. Bollinger that race-conscious programs will not be needed in the next 25 years. But he did make clear that any institution that intends to use race-conscious admissions policies should plan to commit to a continuing process of reflection and evolution over time.
- Not everyone agrees with the court's conclusion. Justice Samuel A. Alito, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote a lengthy dissent -- and took the somewhat rare step of reading it from the bench today. In it, he expressed concerns about: 1) the "black box" of admissions and other institutional decision-making processes, 2) whether UT provided a sufficient evidence base to support its policies (especially the link between what happens in the admissions process and what happens after students arrive on campus), 3) how race really fits into admissions decisions, and 4) what kind of diversity is really valued in holistic review. In the weeks ahead, we in higher education should spend more time understanding the views of the dissenting justices and think through ways in which they may inform institutional judgments moving forward. That may be especially important given the other cases pending in federal courts and new complaints filed with federal agencies that ask many of the same questions of a new batch of institutions.
- As student demonstrations and demands clearly illustrated over the course of the past months, many campus stakeholders do not believe that colleges and universities have yet fully authentically achieved the diversity goals they assert they have. That is, in part, because of the need to consider not only the diversity of the student body but also whether different members feel included and able to participate fully in campus life. After all, the compelling interest at stake isn't about student body diversity as an end in itself. It is a means toward improved teaching and learning, personal and intellectual development, better civic outcomes, and a lively campus environment where all individuals, ideas and perspectives are welcomed.
- And, indeed, the court today noted with approval that, along with statistical information that minority enrollment was decreasing under the solely race-neutral regime, UT included minority students’ experiences of feeling lonely and isolated on the campus. Moving forward, colleges and universities should aim to look for evidence not only of the negative effects of the absence of diversity but also, perhaps even more importantly, of the positive effects of a broadly diverse student body on all members of the institutional community -- with attention to ways in which they can advance fully inclusive learning environments for the benefit of all students.
The decision in Fisher II gives colleges and universities greater confidence that they can continue to use race-conscious enrollment policies to pursue important educational benefits associated with diversity. But it also makes clear that doing so requires "constant" effort and the contributions of almost every member of an institutional community. As the decision concludes, "Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission. But still, it remains an enduring challenge to our nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity."
I am confident that institutions across the country -- working with their partners in research, law, business and their communities -- will be able to meet the challenge. But the ball is in institutions' court. We must get to work.
Terri Taylor is a senior policy and legal adviser with EducationCounsel LLC. She co-authored the amicus brief submitted by the College Board, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, the Law School Admissions Council and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling to the Supreme Court in Fisher II and helps lead the College Board's Access and Diversity Collaborative.
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