An Update on Fisher v. University of Texas

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It’s hard to believe that another summer has flown by so quickly!  How can it possibly be fall again?     For those of us on the college side it means packing our suitcases, hitting the road, talking about our institutions non-stop day in and day out and packing in those airline miles and hotel points; for our colleagues on the high school side it means letters of recommendation galore and many, many conversations about future plans, goals and managing expectations of both students and their families.

While we were away for the summer the 5th Circuit Court issued another ruling on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.  I wrote an opinion piece on this case before and have been closely following the story as I feel it is very important to understand what is happening with this case when looking at the big picture of access to higher education.

Last summer the Supreme Court ruled 7 to 1 to vacate the 5th Circuit Court’s opinion and remanded the case back for review under the “strict scrutiny” standard.  I have to admit I was a bit frustrated and confused when this ruling was issued, but again took the time to read the opinions from both camps and reflected quite deeply about what the multiple rulings mean for the work that we do.  Working previously in the state of Texas as an admission officer for 5 years and being very familiar with the top 10% rule, this case hit close to home.  It prompted me to reflect about the real concerns we face as Admission Officers when we have less information to consider, especially when that information helps us understand the whole picture of a student – background within context.  If a student feels race is an important part of her identity, why are honest discussions about how to consider race not more open and thoughtful?  There is an assumption that race will trump other factors completely in the admission process, but that is a simplified way of approaching the work.  The reality is that consideration of race does not trump all other factors in admission process, but for some institutions, this consideration becomes critical to building a diverse class and meeting an institution’s educational goals.  To understand Fisher in a deeper way, it is important to know some additional history such as Hopwood v. Texas and Grutter v. Bollinger.  Possession of a historical perspective is essential to a broad and deep understanding of the challenges with race conscious admissions.

Where it stands…

On the 15th of July, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit announced its divided decision in the case of Fisher vs. the University of Texas at Austin, which had been remanded to the Fifth Circuit by the Supreme Court in the previous summer. In a 2-1 decision, the Fifth Circuit found in favor of UT Austin. In its decision, the majority wrote, “It is equally settled that universities may use race as part of a holistic admissions program where it cannot otherwise achieve diversity.” The court continued, “This interest is compelled by the reality that university education is more the shaping of lives than the filling of heads with facts — the classic assertion of the humanities.” As of July 22, 2014, Fisher and associated parties planned to file an appeal, either for an en banc hearing with the Fifth Circuit, or to return to the Supreme Court to argue their case.

Universities need to continue to have meaningful discussions about how to meet their educational goals in a country that is constantly racially changing.  Race has to be considered and this case continues to challenge my thinking about how to be more transparent when speaking with students and their families about how diversity strengthens our university, our daily lives and our society.  As someone who has been challenged about making a case for the educational benefits of diversity, I realize we need to do better on the college admission side of the desk when articulating these benefits to students and their families. I strongly hope that we continue to discuss race as it impacts access to higher education and that we strive to understand why this consideration is critical to our progress as a diverse and multiracial nation.

While the court document is quite lengthy, if you have a minute I encourage you to read it or at least the synopsis that can be found in the link above.  What I have presented here is a much abbreviated update.

As Fisher plans to appeal once again, we wait.

To be continued…

By Yamilet Medina López

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