The University may soon enter our country’s spotlight, and football has nothing to do with it. Two white students denied admission to UT in 2008 have filed a lawsuit against the University alleging discrimination because the University uses race as a factor in admissions. Fisher v. University of Texas is currently being appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
UT made its Supreme Court debut in regard to racial discrimination in the admissions process in 1950 when Heman Marion Sweatt applied to UT’s School of Law. He was rejected on the grounds that the Texas Constitution prohibited integrated education. After Sweatt took his case to court, the state district court in Travis County mandated the building of a law campus only for black students.
Dissatisfied with the inadequate solution, Sweatt, his lawyers — including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall — and the NAACP took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. Here, the justices reversed the Travis County ruling, finding the separate campus failed to satisfy the “separate but equal” guidelines of Plessy v. Ferguson, and Sweatt was admitted as the first black man at UT’s law school. Though an embarrassing blemish on UT’s history, this victory was a major stepping-stone in implementing fair, race-conscious admissions processes around the country.
In 1996, UT once again experienced legal problems with its admissions policy, this time on the grounds that the law school was giving preference to minorities in a way similar to the case in question. In Hopwood v. Texas, four white applicants rejected from UT’s law school argued they were denied admission despite being more qualified than many admitted minority students. The plaintiffs won their case in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, thereby setting a precedent that prohibited the use of race for consideration in admissions processes within the fifth circuit court’s jurisdiction. However, it is crucial to note that the Supreme Court abrogated this decision in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger and ruled that the Constitution “does not prohibit the … narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” This decision is the current precedent used in cases similar to Hopwood.
Despite a tumultuous past with race and admissions, UT seems to finally have discovered an appropriate method for ensuring equal opportunity admissions and has a noted goal of developing that sought-after diverse student body.
The Top 10 percent rule and a program of socioeconomic-based affirmative action have helped to increase the minority representation among UT’s student body. The number of Hispanic and black students is increasing considerably every year, equaling the playing field for two of the country’s most underrepresented demographics.
The important thing to remember about UT’s affirmative action practice is that it is a socioeconomic program. Often, minorities are underrepresented at higher education institutions because of economic barriers preventing them from having access to appropriate pre-college assistance, even though they may have plenty of academic potential.
Hence, when dealing with applications outside of the top 8 percent, race and ethnicity are considered. The plaintiffs’ main argument is that the Top 10 percent rule sufficiently ensures a racially diverse range of accepted students, and thus race should not be considered when selecting applicants outside of the top 8 percent. The Top 10 percent rule can still be restrictive, and thus the plaintiffs’ argument that adequate diversity is achieved through this rule falls flat. Moreover, race and ethnicity fall under the special considerations category, which is secondary to academic and personal considerations of the admissions process.
According to The Texas Tribune, the plaintiffs and their lawyers were selected and paid by Project for Fair Representation, an organization that routinely attempts to allege the unconstitutionality of affirmative action. The young women were connected to the organization through the organization’s website utnotfair.org. Such information leads to questions about the motives of the plaintiffs and whether the legal action they are taking was truly necessary or rather simply a grudge being exploited by disgruntled lawyers with a political agenda.
Since affirmative action’s inception, the Supreme Court has fine-tuned this practice to guarantee that race may only be considered to further a compelling government interest in diversity. With a state population as distinct as Texas, diversity is more than a compelling government interest.
The largest state school in Texas should accurately represent the demographics of the state, ranging from ethnicity to economic background. UT’s use of affirmative action strives to ensure diversity is considered in assembling the student body. With a diverse student body comes the exchange of broad, distinct perspectives and crucial dialogue about social issues facing our country. It also provides opportunities for increased civic engagement and paths to leadership among underrepresented groups.
Furthermore, students graduate prepared to enter an increasingly varied workforce.
Affirmative action is a vital, albeit small part of our admissions process that guarantees we attain the education and experience from UT that makes us unique from other universities. The Supreme Court justices must preserve affirmative action until our country is at a place where it can secure racial diversity and equal opportunity by itself. Until then, however, students must recognize the importance of interacting in a vibrant and unique student body.
Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.