For decades, university administrators across the country have contested the use of affirmative action in college admissions. A ruling from the United States Supreme Court is expected to address the issue soon — but in the meantime, a second race-related admissions case has already been added to the Court’s docket.
The Supreme Court decided in early 2012 that it would hear Fisher v. Texas — the case of Abigail Fisher, a white student who claimed she was denied admission to the University of Texas based on racial preference — and a ruling is expected to be made in the coming weeks or months. Despite the lack of a resolution to the Fisher case, the Court made the surprising decision last week to add a second affirmative action case to its next term docket.
This second case, titled Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, addresses the constitutionality of a Michigan voter initiative that banned racial preferences in admissions to the state’s public universities. The Fisher case addresses whether affirmative action practices in university admissions are constitutional, while the Michigan case addresses whether banning such practices is constitutional.
Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economics professor who co-authored a paper on affirmative action’s effectiveness in closing the gap between students from different backgrounds, said taking the case shows that the Court wants to evaluate racial preferences more broadly, away from a “narrow ruling” on the Fisher case. Yale Law School professor William Eskridge LAW ’78 said the Michigan case is the third one taken in six months that addresses race-related matters.
“Taking the case mainly illustrates the justices’ interest in cases raising this issue,” Eskridge said. “They don’t take that many cases, and that means they’re giving these cases priorities.”
As justices decide the Fisher case, Eskridge added, its result will probably influence the Court’s later decision in the Michigan case.
Arcidiacono said he thinks the Court will likely impose greater restrictions on the use of racial preferences in higher education. But the effects of these potential restrictions, the most far-reaching of which would be a blanket ban on racial preferences in admissions, are currently unknown.
“It really is about the distribution of minorities at top colleges, not whether certain groups have access to college at all,” Arcidiacono said, adding that minority students competing for spots at selective schools would still likely attend college elsewhere, though such selective institutions would be “a lot less diverse” under an affirmative action ban.
Although both the Fisher and Michigan cases address public education, public universities will not be the only ones affected by the Supreme Court’s potential ruling on affirmative action. Because the majority of private universities receive some form of federal funding, both public and private universities may see a change in admissions policies if the Court rules that racial preference in admissions is unconstitutional.
University President Richard Levin told the News last spring that Yale “has practiced affirmative action in admissions since the 1960s and will continue to do so as long as it is consistent with the law of the United States.”
Professors at various law schools have been among those submitting briefs to the Fisher case. In October 2012, Yale Law School Dean Robert Post teamed up with Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow LAW ’79 to write a brief to the Court titled “Why race matters in school admissions,” advocating for the use of racial preference in admissions. Because race influences the lives of many applicants, Post and Minow argued, to require race-blind admissions would be unfair and also impractical.
A decision by the Court on the Fisher case is due in the current term, which ends in October. The Court will rule on the Michigan case in its 2013-’14 term.