The Supreme Court ruled today that the University of Texas has the right to consider race in admissions decisions, setting a controversial precedent as Yale and its peer institutions face scrutiny over similar practices.
The decision ends a civil suit that Abigail Fisher, a white woman, brought against the University of Texas in 2008 alleging that the school had unlawfully discriminated against her in admissions because of her race. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for the case, which states that the University of Texas is permitted to use race-based admissions in order to achieve educational benefits that result from student body diversity.
Yale is not facing any ongoing lawsuits regarding race-conscious admissions, but on May 24 a coalition of over 100 Asian-American groups filed federal complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education asking officials to investigate admissions practices at Yale, Dartmouth College and Brown University.
“A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which makes for greatness,’” the Supreme Court decision read, citing language used in Sweatt v. Painter, a 1950 Supreme Court decision that successfully challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine of racial segregation in public facilities. “Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.”
This morning’s 4-to-3 ruling broadly allows universities, including Yale, to use affirmative action as long as they document their reasons and justify them using data, according to Vinay Harpalani, a professor at Savannah Law School in Georgia and an expert on race-conscious university admissions.
Private universities have historically assumed that any ruling involving a public university and based on the Equal Protection Clause, as the Fisher decision is, would also apply to them, Harpalani said.
Harpalani added that he supports the ruling and said the Supreme Court has ruled before that diversity is a compelling interest in higher education.
In his dissent, however, Justice Samuel Alito, Jr. wrote that the University of Texas did not adequately demonstrate its need to consider race in order to achieve diversity. Referencing previous decisions, he wrote that the constitutional imperative to ensure equal treatment under the law holds, despite a “‘faddish theory’ that that racial discrimination may produce ‘educational benefits.’”
University spokesman Tom Conroy did not return a request for comment Thursday. In the past he has maintained that Yale needs affirmative action to assemble diverse classes of students.
There are pending lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina over claims that affirmative action violates applicants’ constitutional rights. The Project on Fair Representation, a group that provided legal counsel to Fisher, is supporting those suits.
Edward Blum, the group’s director, said in a statement to the News that today’s decision was a step backward for the colorblind principles behind the country’s civil rights laws.
“As long as universities like the University of Texas continue to treat applicants differently by race and ethnicity, the social fabric that holds us together as a nation will be weakened,” Blum said.
In 2014, Blum told the News that his group plans to file more lawsuits against universities around the country, and that Yale is one of its targeted schools.
The Supreme Court considered Fisher v. University of Texas in 2013, but sent the case back to the lower appellate court after ruling that the latter had not applied the standard of strict scrutiny, the highest level of judicial review used by American courts.