The Supreme Court Upholds Affirmative Action in Education After Major University of Texas Decision



By: Tony McCray

Affirmative Action supporters were handed a major victory by the United States Supreme Court on Thursday, June 23rd when the decision was rendered by a 4-to-3 vote on the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. The decision was totally unexpected. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the author of the majority opinion, has long been skeptical of race-sensitive programs and had never before voted to uphold an affirmative action plan.

Lawrence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard stated that there has been no decision since Brown v. Board of Education that has been as important as Fisher v. University of Texas.  He felt that the impact of the decision will prove its significance in the history of racial inclusion and educational diversity initiatives.

The NAACP national office issued the following statement after the Supreme Court’s decision on the University of Texas:

“The NAACP applauds the Supreme Court’s decision affirming that, when necessary and appropriately tailored, race can be used as one factor in determining admissions to public institutions of higher education.  The Court’s decision ensures that public universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin, may lawfully take steps to increase racial diversity on campus, thus fostering new opportunities for generations of children of all races while also helping advance a more just and tolerant society.

“Education on college campuses is about more than books and exams.  As the University of Texas and its supporters successfully argued to the Court, the college education experience allows students from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to live and work together in a variety of settings.  Bringing together students from widely varied backgrounds is a critical part of the process of educating a new generation of leaders.  Particularly in these complex times when racial and ethnic tensions threaten the core values of our nation, institutions of higher education must continue to produce graduates who understand, appreciate and embrace diversity and difference.

The Fisher v. University of Texas decision involved an unusual program and contained a warning to other universities that not all affirmative action programs will pass constitutional muster.  However, the ruling’s basic message was that admissions officials may continue to consider race as one factor among many in ensuring a diverse student body.

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, said courts must give universities substantial but not total leeway in designing their admissions programs.

“A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness,’” Justice Kennedy wrote, quoting from a landmark desegregation case that, “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,” Justice Kennedy added, “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.”

“The Supreme Court has affirmed that public institutions of higher learning have a window in which to ensure that the considerable benefits of a racially diverse student body are available to be enjoyed by all of the students on their campuses.  Our nation benefits when we produce leaders who understand and appreciate others, and we are gratified that the Court has provided a path for public colleges and universities to accomplish this compelling objective.”

Under the University of Texas’ admissions program, most applicants from within the state are admitted under a part of the program that guarantees admission to top students in every high school in the state. This is often called the Top 10 Percent program, though the percentage cutoff can vary by year.

The Top 10 Percent program has produced significant racial and ethnic diversity. In 2011, for instance, 26 percent of freshmen who enrolled under the program were Hispanic, and 6 percent were black. The population of Texas is about 38 percent Hispanic and 12 percent black.

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