Schlissel reaffirms commitment to diversity following SCOTUS ruling on affirmative action

Friday, June 24, 2016 - 8:59pm

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin to uphold the university’s affirmative action policy in a 4 to 3 vote Thursday.

Following the decision, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel released a statement applauding the Supreme Court’s decision and emphasizing the importance of diversity and its role in enabling universities to succeed. Schlissel also explained that Thursday’s ruling has no effect on the University. This is because the 2006 Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action case led to the Supreme Court upholding Michigan's right to amend its constitution to prevent affirmative action at public universities. “Decades of research have conclusively demonstrated the benefits of diversity in higher education,” Schlissel said in his statement. “The University of Michigan remains steadfastly committed to building and maintaining diversity on our campus. We will continue to work toward that goal in ways that comply with state and federal law.”

University of Michigan Law Prof. Richard Friedman reaffirmed the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision will have no immediate impact on the University of Michigan. Friedman explained in an e-mail to the Daily that the ruling on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin reaffirms the constitutionality of the holistic application review previously practiced by the University's Law School. Its constitutionality was also previously upheld by the Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger. “But the people of the state, by an amendment to the state constitution, decided that they didn't want to allow the public universities of the state to engage in affirmative action, and the Supreme Court upheld the validity of that amendment in the Schuette case.”

In November 2015, the University of Michigan weighed in on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin based on its experience of forgoing affirmative action for several years. In an amicus brief submitted to the court, the University defended affirmative action by arguing that pursuing diversity is a normal goal for universities and supported the University of Texas in its attempt to achieve diversity.

Only seven justices participated in Thursday’s decision, as Justice Elena Kagan recused — due to her previous work on the case as the U.S. solicitor general — and Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat remains unfilled. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Anthony Kennedy voted to uphold the university’s admissions policy, with Kennedy delivering the opinion of the court. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas dissented with both Thomas and Alito filing dissenting opinions.

Kennedy stated that universities should be able to experiment on ways to create a diverse student body to better their institution. He wrote: "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.” Thomas argued that admissions based on race violates the Constitution: "The Constitution abhors classifications based on race because every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all."

The University of Texas admissions program follows a “Top 10 Percent program” — meaning applicants from Texas are guaranteed admission if they are within the top 10 percent of their graduating high school classes. The rest of the student body is accepted based on a combination of factors typical of most schools: academic achievement, extracurricular involvement and race. This case was first filed in 2008 when Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin. She held that her rejection constituted discrimination due to the consideration of race in admissions. She went on to attend and graduate from Louisiana State University.

The University of Texas is not the first to be challenged on its practice of affirmative action — the University of Michigan has also experienced turmoil over the controversial admissions strategy.

The 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger resulted in the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the affirmative action policies then practiced at the University of Michigan's Law School. However, in 2006, Michigan voters banned the use of race in admissions after a statewide ballot initiative by adding an amendment to the state’s constitution. Then, in 2014, the 2006 referendum was brought into question. Eventually, the Supreme Court voted 6 to 2 in favor of the constitutionality of the 2006 amendment to Michigan's state constitution. Other states including Florida and California also forbid affirmative action in higher education and have seen a drop in the college enrollment of Black and Hispanic students.