Affirmative action returned to the forefront of national politics yesterday as the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a case that could potentially overturn the landmark 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger, that upheld the constitutionality of using race in college admissions.
The court will hear the suit filed by Abigail Fisher, a white Texas resident who was denied admission to the University of Texas in 2008, that claimed she was qualified for acceptance but rejected due to her race.
Texas public universities accept the top ten percent of each high school class in the state, then evaluate students below that level on other factors, including race.
A federal district judge found the University of Texas’s admission process to be constitutional, leading to a series of appeals that eventually brought the case, Fisher v. University of Texas, to the Supreme Court.
The court’s ruling could affect public universities nation-wide by reversing the 2003 Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which decided that the University Law School’s admission process — providing minorities an advantage without using a quota — was a constitutional way to increase the diversity of incoming classes.
“The Law School engages in a highly individualized, holistic view of each applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to all the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion.
Charles Shipan, political science professor and department chair, said it is likely the Supreme Court will agree with Fisher’s claim because of the conservative voting history of the majority of the court’s current judges.
“Several of the judges in the Court right now, including (Justice Clarence) Thomas and (Justice Antonin) Scalia don’t feel bound by precedent very much at all,” Shipan said.
According to Shipan, a ruling in favor of Fisher would affect public institutions that consider race in their evaluations of applicants.
“If a school is currently saying that we take a holistic look … they can no longer use race as one of the factors,” Shipan said.
Shipan added the ruling is not based solely on which side the court takes, but on how the decision is defined and justified.
“(The Supreme Court) lawfully (has) a lot of leeway to make other sorts of decisions…whether they’ll cast it very broadly and completely eliminate race from consideration, or whether they’ll cast it more narrowly, and find some things about how Texas does it and strike that down,” Shipan said.
University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said the University will closely follow the case and its potential impact on public education, but the decision may not change University admission policies.
Proposal 2, a 2006 Michigan ballot proposal, amended the Michigan Constitution, by banning preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, sex or national origin in gaining admission to public universities and other public institutions.
“We will be watching what happens at the Supreme Court, but the University has legal obligations under state law, and so whatever happens at the central level is unlikely to change what we do here,” Cunningham said.
Last July, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the amendment was unconstitutional.
“This is a tremendous victory for the University of Michigan, for all of higher education, and for the hundreds of groups and individuals who supported us,” University President Mary Sue Coleman said in a press release addressing the ruling.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette appealed the court’s ruling, and the full 6th Circuit will again consider the constitutionality of the proposal on March 7.
Former University President Lee Bollinger, now the president of Columbia University, was a defendant in Grutter v. Bollinger. He said in an interview with The New York Times that he was concerned about the Supreme Court taking up the affirmative action issue again.
“I think it’s ominous,” Bollinger told the Times. “It threatens to undo several decades of effort within higher education to build a more integrated and just and educationally enriched environment.”