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The Power of Now
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Today the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (“LDF”) is filing an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, urging the U.S. Supreme Court to preserve diversity and opportunity in America’s colleges and universities.
A wide range of over 70 amici briefs were filed supporting diversity in Fisher. These included the United States, student organizations, 444 prominent social scientists, leading empirical scholars, the Anti-Defamation League, and a large number of colleges and universities ranging from public flagship schools (e.g., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) to eight Catholic universities (e.g., Fordham, Georgetown, Notre Dame) and 37 private liberal arts colleges (e.g., Amherst, Oberlin, Wesleyan). Dozens of additional significant briefs were also filed later, including briefs from high-ranking retired military officials, leading corporations, small business owners, 17 U.S. Senators, National League of Cities, states (e.g., California), religious denominations, labor unions, the College Board, and civil and human rights organizations (e.g., MALDEF and other Latino organizations, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Asian American Center for Advancing Justice, National Women's Law Center, Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, ACLU and the American Jewish Committee).
Fisher challenges the modest consideration of race in admissions at the University of Texas at Austin (“UT”). It is the first case to revisit affirmative action in higher education in the U.S. Supreme Court since the landmark 2003 decision, Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld an admissions policy at the University of Michigan Law School and broadly affirmed the educational importance of diversity.
“In Grutter the Supreme Court recognized the significant educational benefits of diversity—not just for students of color, but for all students. For many students, college is the first time they have meaningful opportunities to interact with people from vastly different backgrounds. These interactions can open minds and change lives. A diverse college experience better prepares students to participate in our Nation’s civic life,” said Debo P. Adegbile, LDF’s Acting President and Director-Counsel.
LDF’s Director of Education, Damon Hewitt, added, “Ensuring that the pathways to leadership and opportunity remain visibly open is critical for African-American students in particular because they were excluded from schools like the University of Texas at Austin for much of their history. Singling out race as the only factor that cannot be considered would send the implicit message to minority students that a critical element of their identity is irrelevant, or even unwelcome.”
The admissions policy at issue in Fisher has two components: Most students are admitted under a state law (the “Top Ten Percent Plan”), which requires the University of Texas at Austin to admit all Texas residents who rank in the top ten percent of their high school class. For the remainder of the class, UT undertakes a holistic “whole-file” review of applications. This process allows the school to consider additional criteria, such as essays, leadership qualities, extracurricular activities, awards, work experience, community service, family responsibilities, socio-economic status, languages spoken in the home, and—as of 2005—race. It is this modest consideration of race alongside a host of other factors that is now at issue in the Supreme Court.
LDF has played a key role in Fisher, filing briefs at every stage of the litigation and presenting oral argument in the court of appeals in support of the diversity policy adopted by UT. LDF’s Supreme Court amicus brief, filed along with the Black Student Alliance (“BSA”) at UT Austin and the Black Ex-Students of Texas, Inc. (“BEST”), makes a compelling case for race-conscious admissions at UT and colleges across the nation. A key theme of the brief is the importance of meaningful representation of students of color to foster cross-racial interactions, break down stereotypes, and prepare the Nation’s future leaders. The brief also warns of the devastating impact that would result from prohibiting colleges, especially those with histories of discrimination like UT, from using race-conscious admissions policies.
UT’s consideration of race in admissions is exceedingly modest, even more so than the law school admissions policy at issue in Grutter. But the impact of the race-conscious component of the policy is meaningful. After UT added consideration of race into its individualized admissions policy beginning in 2005, African-Americans enrollment grew by over 21 percent.
The race-conscious holistic review process is an important supplement to the Top Ten Percent Plan. From 1997 through 2004, UT did not consider race in admissions. The impact was devastating. At no point between 1997 and 2004 did African-American students comprise more than 4.5% of the entering first-year class. Nearly four out of every five UT undergraduate classes had zero or one African-American students. The extreme racial isolation on UT’s campus during those years, including a series of racially charged incidents that rocked the campus, contributed to a difficult and racially hostile environment for African-American students.
The Supreme Court’s conceptualization of the educational benefits of diversity dates back to a former LDF case, Sweatt v. Painter. In 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court in Sweatt ordered UT’s Law School to admit an African-American candidate, Heman Marion Sweatt. Although Sweatt was academically qualified, he had been denied admission based solely on his race. This history, combined with the need to improve the racial climate on campus, elevated the particular importance and educational benefits of promoting student diversity at UT and bolstered the case for UT’s eventual return to race-conscious admissions. Sweatt’s daughter and other family members also filed a brief today supporting UT.
Read the news release from the University of Texas.
More information on the case is available on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case site.
Amicus briefs and other legal documents in the case are available at the University of Texas at Austin’s website.