Battle over Affirmative Action – Again.

This week I moderated a press briefing on the affirmative action admissions case the Supreme Court will be hearing on Wednesday.  The press briefing was on behalf of the Leadership Conference Education Fund and its sister organization, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.  It featured the top civil rights advocates who had also filed fired of the court briefs – Tom Saenz from MALDEF, Debo Adegbile from the NAACP-LDF, Marcia Greenberger from the National Women’s Law Center and a University of California at San Diego undergraduate student, Michelle Lee, who is Chinese Americans.  Click here to download an MP3 recording of the call.

Yet again, this challenge involves a white female student.  Her name is Abigail Fisher.  She was denied admissions to University of Texas.  She instead attended and graduated from Louisiana State this year.  Ironically, for its first 70 years, the University of Texas was for whites only, until its law school was successfully sued by an African American. 

Texas now has an interesting admissions system for its state universities.  It takes the top 10% of graduates from each of the high schools.  Because Texas still has a fairly high degree of informal neighborhood segregation, the top 10% plan does provide some diversity to the student body, but not always in a state that is 55% minority.

Almost 90% of the class is filled by the top 10% process.  For the rest, University of Texas gives a holistic look at each candidate, including essays, and considers a number of factors such as leadership potential, work experience, community service, honors and awards, extracurricular activities and special circumstances such as socioeconomic status and race.   In this part of the admissions process, the number of white students getting in is still higher than Asians, Hispanics, Blacks and Native Americans, so clearly race is not determinative.  In fact, Fisher’s own attorney estimates that it may have mattered for 33 out of approximately 14,000 students admitted.

Interestingly, Fisher does not claim that diversity in education is not important – that was settled by the Supreme Court in Grutter, the Michigan affirmative action case a few years ago.  Instead, she argues that since 96% of the African American and Hispanic students are already getting in under the 10% plan, it isn’t necessary for the University to have this additional discretion.  And they claim that if race isn’t used as a factor for Asian Americans (who by the way are also getting admitted in significant numbers through both the 10% plan and the additional holistic look) even though there are fewer of them than Hispanic students, it must not be fair.

A handful of Asian American groups have filed friend of the court briefs in support of Fisher.  Well over 130 Asian American groups and individuals have filed in support of the University of Texas, arguing both that some segments of the Asian American population still need affirmative action in admissions; that Asian American students, like all students, benefit greatly from diversity in the classroom; and that the modest system in place in Texas does not in fact unfairly disadvantage Asian Americans.  Recently, a scientifically conducted survey by academics over 3300 Asian Americans and Pacific Islander found that about 3 in every 4 surveyed supported affirmative action programs. Click here  for a statement by Asian American supporters of affirmative action and a couple of their briefs.