Q&A: Powers faces Fisher Pt. 2

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a two-part Q&A with UT President William Powers Jr., former dean of the School of Law, about the Abigail Fisher case, which the U.S. Supreme Court will hear on Oct. 10. The high court’s decision could influence the use of race by college admissions officials nationwide. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Daily Texan: How do you address the argument that UT doesn’t use quotas, but they compare the numbers and percentages of races within a class to the percentages of races and ethnicities in the state?
William Powers: That’s incorrect. It is true that African Americans and Latinos are underrepresented. When we say underrepresented, we mean there’s not sufficient diversity in the classrooms and on the campus.

DT: How do you contend with [U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge] Edith Jones’ argument [in her dissenting opinion, which was against UT] that you couldn’t mathematically achieve the classroom diversity you’re seeking, to make it so that people are not a token representative of their race?
I disagree with it. We’re not saying every single class has to have a certain number. It’s a sufficient number so that the educational benefits of diversity are for all of our students, not just our minority students. Learning to work in a world where you work across cultural, economic and ethnic lines is an important educational goal. That only works if a sufficient number of classes have sufficient diversity. It doesn’t mean that every single class has to match some model.

DT: How do you address the notion that Asian students are overrepresented in the sense that there’s a much greater percentage of Asian students at UT than in the population of Texas?
When we say overrepresented or underrepresented we don’t mean as against the population. We mean as against the goals of having a diverse class. The presence of Asians in our classes is a very important part of this educational process. People need to work both globally and within in the state and learning about Asian culture and learning to work across cultural lines. So it’s a very important part of diversity. Why is it that Asians are not underrepresented and African Americans and Hispanics are? Well, there are economic reasons, there are historical reasons for that. African Americans in my lifetime were legally barred from attending our campus, and they may come from families where the tradition of going to a place like UT or to UT isn’t there. There are economic reasons. There are a lot of reasons and barriers as to why Hispanics and African Americans would be underrepresented on the campus. But the fact is that they are, and that hurts the educational process for all of our students.

DT: The thing I struggle with is the argument that the Asian American Legal Foundation raised, which is the notion that somebody from India is somehow the same quotient of diversity as someone from China?
We don’t think that. Intra-ethnic group diversity is also important. We appreciate that South Asian culture is very different from East Asian culture, and that’s a form of diversity that would be important. Does it get reported that way? No, and the reason is the federal government has reporting criteria that we have to report to and they say “Asian.” And in that sense both are Asian, but when we’re looking at holistic review we understand that South Asian culture is different from East Asian culture. And for that matter, Thai culture is different from Chinese culture and Indian culture is different from Pakistani culture. We understand that.

DT: But it’s not considered that way in the counting of an ethnicity?
We look at the ethnicity of everybody. Somebody who grew up in South Asia, but prospered and thrived in Beijing, we’d say has characteristics to work across cultures, which we think is a trait that people ought to bring. Holistic review lets you look at the whole file and lets you look at the individual and analyze it. The fact that we report Asians as a group is totally a function of the federal government.

DT: If students plan to listen to the audio of the arguments before the Court, what do you recommend they listen to in terms of questions from the bench and answers from the lawyers?
I’ve given a lot of legal arguments. They all go differently. I just say listen attentively. I wouldn’t say listen to what so-and-so asks about that question. It’s hard to know exactly how the argument would go. I’d just listen attentively.

DT: As former dean of the [UT] law school, have you played a more integral role with decision making in arguing UT’s case than others in the administration?
I’m not arguing the case. I didn’t write the briefs. I suppose I played an integral role because I’m president of the University and this is a very important case for the University. I happen to have been dean of the law school, I work with lawyers a lot and that has some color on—you know, I probably know the law firms a little better. But I don’t think me being dean of the law school had much influence.

DT: Many in the legislature would like all UT’s admissions to be based on the Top Ten Percent law. What percent of such automatic admissions do you view as ideal?
Well, when the Top Ten Percent law came into play about 47 or 48 percent of our students came in under it. That worked pretty well. I know that worked very well. There are multiple pathways into the university. When it gets to everyone, that’s the only pathway into the university, that is not a very good way to admit the class. But think about it—automatic admission doesn’t match up with our program. And there are other characteristics that we’re looking for in minority students and in non-minority students. Not everyone is admitted on one criterion. The student who won the statewide math contest and has fabulous math work and is student body president, but stumbled in their sophomore year, and therefore is 12 percent in their class — Princeton and Harvard and Berkeley would love to have them. We’d love to have them. But they are precluded by law from coming here when you get everybody under it [the Top Ten Percent law]. And think about—you’re taking applications for The Daily Texan or General Motors is taking applications for a certain area and you’ve got five positions and a hundred people apply. No one, no other university, no other enterprise, would say to their HR department: “Okay, go list them by grade point average and take the top five and we don’t want to know anything else about them.” It is not a good way. Now, when half the class is coming in under that, then there’s certain geographic diversity. It’s an incentive to kids in the schools but there’s plenty of other ways to get into the university. But to say the only way in is this one criterion is not a good way to admit students.

DT: If race is taken out of these criteria but you still use geography—in the state of Texas race is somewhat intertwined with geography. So would that become an issue as well?
Well, the Top Ten Percent law, is based on geographic and even school-by-school segregation and living patterns. So the Top Ten Percent rule did make a contribution to diversity for the reasons that you’re describing. That’s why I say as long as it’s not everybody coming in [through top 10 Percent], there’s some benefits of having some of our students coming in through [Top 10 Percent]. But even that did not achieve the diversity that we need.

Nobody is challenging our Top Ten Percent rule on legal grounds. At that point from a legal point of view, geographic diversity is not being challenged. If we were to say something like 90 percent of our students are going to come from south Texas would somebody challenge that? Yes. If we said we’re going to equally disperse across the state it would have some contribution to diversity. But it depends on how we do it. Right now Top Ten Percent … nobody is suggesting a legal challenge to that on grounds of racial discrimination.