Court resumes case over race and admissions at UT


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and Chief Photojournalist SCOTT GUEST

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Posted on November 13, 2013 at 8:06 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 13 at 8:20 PM

AUSTIN -- For decades the University of Texas has sought to promote a diverse campus.

"There's a lot of culture in diversity, and it's important to learn about other people who are here living and sharing this world with you," said university senior Erica Williams.

"It makes people feel comfortable. Like if you're in a room with a bunch of people who don't know your culture, don't know where you come from, it's unsettling," said sophomore Kyle Saysana. "It doesn't breed a good environment for you to learn to enjoy your four years here."

A 2008 lawsuit filed by Abigail Fisher argues that as a Caucasian, she was denied entrance because of a race-conscious admissions policy at the university. After a lower court upheld Texas' policy, the U.S. Supreme Court in June ordered the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to reassess the case.

"They gave us everything that we asked for, and I'm very confident that UT won't be able to use race in the future," Fisher said after the ruling.

The Supreme Court has ruled that universities can use race-conscious admissions policies to promote diversity on campus. In Fisher v. the University of Texas, it ruled that the lower court inappropriately deferred to the university's benevolent intent and instead put the burden on Fisher.

In sending the case back to the Fifth Circuit, the high court said the burden is on the University of Texas to show that its policies are narrowly tailored to the objective of promoting diversity and don't make race the defining feature of an application.

Under the current admissions policy, a full 75 percent of each new class have been automatically accepted by graduating high school in the top seven percent of their class, the so-called "Ten Percent" rule. The remaining 25 percent are accepted under a rule that scores applicants on a grid, with an Academic Index (AI) score on one side and a Personal Achievement Index (PAI) score on the other.

The PAI score is the main portion of the policy being questioned. The index considers extracurricular activities, volunteer work and socioeconomic factors as well as race, which does not receive a numeral score. Applicants whose combined AI and PAI scores are similar are grouped into cells, which are either admitted or turned away together.

"Affirmative action right now is a good thing, we do need it. But I do kind of see where she's coming from," said Saysana, explaining that he sides with the school while allowing that Fisher has a point. "Right now it's alright, but in the future we should definitely look towards lessening affirmative action in terms of our decisions for admissions."

"It's not fair to generalize," said Williams. "The people who were accepted were accepted. The people who weren't, weren't accepted. Move on. Apply somewhere else."

"I think that factors into qualification and the opportunities you have," said graduate student Tim Roach.

"I don't think it'd be appropriate for the school to let in only white people or only black people," said sophomore Alana Zitron. "You have to have some sort of ethnic diversity."

The university returned to court Wednesday arguing the policy is needed to ensure a "critical mass" of diversity. With racial quotas ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the university faces the difficult task of explicitly defining that critical mass under strict scrutiny as ordered by the high court without tying it to a certain percentage of minority students.

Speaking with media after the hour-long hearing, University of Texas President Bill Powers voiced confidence that the case record will show the university has exhausted all alternative race-neutral options to increase diversity. He says it will also show that the current rule comports with established case law. Powers described the concept of critical mass as a holistic evaluation.

"When there is enough diversity in enough classrooms that all of our students, not just minority students, are getting the benefit of working in a diverse environment to go out and work in a diverse world," said Powers.

Fisher told the media the Supreme Court's decision to vacate the ruling in favor of the university and remand it to the lower court was a victory. Fisher, who has since graduated from another college, said the decision to pursue the case isn't about personal gain.

"I would like other people to fight for my rights, so I'm fighting for everyone's rights here," said Fisher.

There's no indication when a ruling from the Fifth Circuit could be handed down. There remains a possibility the case could be sent back to trial court to consider further evidence, as well as be appealed back up to the Supreme Court at some point.