Once again, affirmative action is before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is being asked to decide how much is enough when it comes to efforts to achieve racial diversity on college campuses.
The mere fact that the court agreed to take up the issue has fueled speculation that it might hand down a landmark decision invalidating programs specifically designed to increase a student body’s minority representation.
In 2003, the court ruled that the University of Michigan School of Law could consider race as one factor in student admissions, but it did not mandate that colleges must have affirmative action programs to achieve diversity.
Indeed, then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who voted with the 5-4 majority in approving the Michigan law school’s approach to admitting minority students, predicted that within 25 years the use of “racial preferences” should no longer be needed.
Nine years later, that day clearly has not come. However, the makeup of the Supreme Court has changed significantly. It is a more conservative body, which means it could decide now is as good a time as any to eliminate all racial preferences.
The court is scheduled to hear arguments Wednesday on a lawsuit challenging the University of Texas’ undergraduate admissions process filed by Abigail Noel Fisher, who contends she was denied admission to the university while minority students with lower grades were admitted.
The university uses race as one of a number of factors in filling the last quarter of its incoming freshman class. The rest of the about 7,100 freshman spots automatically go to Texans who graduated in the top 8 percent of their high school classes.
The case could have sweeping implications if the court reaches a decision that could be applied beyond efforts on campuses across the country to achieve more diverse student populations.
At the University of Texas, blacks are only 5 percent of the 52,000 students, while the state’s population is 12 percent African American. Hispanics are only 18 percent of the university’s student body, but are 38 percent of the state population.
While the university has been able to improve diversity by automatically admitting the top seniors at each school, officials say there are still too many classrooms with only token minority representation.
In its 2003 ruling, the court said there were “substantial” benefits to diversity in an educational setting. It added that, “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”
But the slim court majority that said that appears to no longer exist. Justice Samuel Alito, who replaced O’Connor, was a member of a group opposed to affirmative action at Princeton University. Justice Anthony Kennedy, usually a key swing vote, was against affirmative action in the 2003 case. Voiding affirmative action without offering viable alternatives would be devastating.