Next week, the Supreme Court will hear argument in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the case that could end affirmative action for public colleges and universities across the country—or not. Scores of briefs expressing many points of view have been filed. The family of Heman Sweatt, who was denied admission to the University of Texas Law School in 1946 because he was black—and won a court case challenging that decision four years later—is asking the court to be patient and let affirmative action stand as is for now. One Asian-American group argues that affirmative action penalizes Asian Americans by the equivalent of hundreds of SAT points at elite schools because Asians are overrepresented among academic achievers. Another Asian-American group argues, to the contrary, that there’s no such effect, and that after UT started taking race into account in admissions, the number of Asian-American students held steady.
Retired military officers told the court that ordering UT and other schools to stop considering the personal attributes of aspiring students, including race, would “seriously disrupt the military,” which needs college-educated recruits from a range of backgrounds. (African-American enlisted troops outnumber African-American officers by 2 to 1.) A long list of major businesses similarly want to hire college-educated employees of different races and ethnicities who have been exposed to a “broadly diverse student body.” This is “a business and economic imperative,” the groups argue. The alumni of UT, including a group of former student-body presidents, have weighed in to say they favor continuing the university’s form of affirmative action. The Center for Individual Rights argues that minorities don’t benefit from affirmative action: They’re seen as undeserving and set up to fare poorly in school.
In all, I count 73 briefs on the side of the UT and 18 on the side of Abigail Fisher, the white applicant who is challenging the university’s consideration of race in admissions. The outpouring reflects how much we all care about this issue. But what’s missing from most of the briefs I read is personal experience: How has affirmative action touched you, for good or bad? What has your experience of it been—as a student, an applicant, a teacher, a college admissions officer, a legislator? What happened and what did you conclude from your experience? I’m asking for your stories and your thoughts. Please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, post them in the comments below, or tweet them at me. Email may be quoted in Slate unless you stipulate otherwise. If you want to be quoted anonymously, please let me know.
As you collect your thoughts, here’s a bit of history about UT’s admissions policy and Abigail Fisher’s lawsuit. UT was founded in 1883, and for its first 70 years, the university was segregated. For years after desegregation, the university admitted students based on their academic performance, test scores, and race. That approach went down in a major federal appeals court ruling about law school admissions in 1996. The law school was told it could not use race as a factor in deciding whom to admit—not for the sake of diversity and not to redress past discrimination, and the rest of the university changed its policy as well. In 1997, the Texas legislature passed what’s called the “top 10 percent” plan: Texas high-school graduates in the top 10 percent of their classes are admitted to state universities. The university continues to fill 80 to 85 percent of each class this way. And because of the pattern of housing segregation in Texas, a substantial number of minorities get in this way.
In 2003, the Supreme Court allowed affirmative action, for purposes of diversity, that doesn’t take the form of a quota (effectively overruling the 1996 appeals court decision). Since then, UT has taken into account race in selecting students for the 15 to 20 percent of slots not filled by the top-10-percent plan. Here’s how this works: For these spots, the admissions department considers an academic index and a “personal achievement index” based on two essays, leadership potential, extracurriculars, honors and awards, work experience, community service, and special circumstances. That last category includes socioeconomic status and race.
The university calls this “a factor of a factor of a factor of a factor in UT’s holistic review.” Abigail Fisher calls it reverse discrimination. She wasn’t in the top 10 percent of her high-school class, and she was denied admission to UT in 2008. Because of her relatively low score on the academic index, UT says she wouldn’t have gotten in even with a perfect personal achievement score. No matter, Fisher sued.
Interestingly, one of Fisher’s arguments (or rather, her lawyers’ arguments) against the university’s factoring in of race is that it doesn’t actually matter much. Her brief estimates that race was decisive for, at most, 33 students admitted in 2008—and that 96 percent of the African-American and Hispanics who got in that year were admitted because they’d graduated at the top of their high-school classes. In other words, UT shouldn’t factor in race because it has no need to. The racially neutral top-10-percent plan has boosted minority enrollment on its own.
And in fact, whites have been admitted at a significantly higher rate in the race-conscious personal achievement score group than in the race-neutral top-10-percent group. Take a look at these numbers from 2008:
This seems like more proof that the effect of taking race into account is small. But maybe that’s actually a defense of the admissions policy. UT says it factors in race as one of several personal attributes that enrich the student body as a whole. And it defends the personal achievement index for allowing admissions officers to evaluate incoming students as multifaceted individuals. “This Court presumably would not select its own law clerks based solely on class rank,” the university’s brief states.
The Supreme Court’s 2003 decision on affirmative action doesn’t let public universities count race in order that their student bodies will match the local demographics. But I’ll tell you how this lines up anyway: In 2010, the UT first-year class was majority-minority for the first time, with white students totaling 47 percent. The breakdown does resemble the changing demographics of Texas: In 2010, the state was 45 percent white, 39 percent Hispanic, 11.5 percent black, and about 5 percent other.
So, what do you think? How has affirmative action played out in your life, and what’s your take on this case as a result? I’m looking forward to reading your answers.