Supreme Court and colleges will clash over affirmative action

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 7, 2012 

— At South Carolina’s Clemson University, ensuring racial diversity in enrollment has a special resonance because of the region’s history of segregation and discrimination.

“That legacy still overshadows much of what we’ve been able to accomplish in more balanced enrollments,” said Leon Wiles, the school’s chief diversity officer.

African-Americans accounted for 6 percent of Clemson’s nearly 16,000 undergraduate students who enrolled last fall, according to school records, while white students made up 84 percent. Overall, African-Americans account for 28 percent of the state’s population.

Clemson and other colleges and universities across the country will be closely watching the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday when it takes up the issue of racial preferences in admissions with an affirmative action case involving the University of Texas. Higher education officials around the country fear that the justices are on the cusp of complicating their efforts to increase campus diversity.

Their eventual ruling could narrow or possibly overturn the court’s 2003 decision that allowed schools to use race as a factor in admissions.

“I don’t have a crystal ball and I’m not a lawyer, but I do know it’s a more conservative court,” said Caryn McTighe Musil, senior vice president for diversity issues at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “There are many who are worried it will remove one more tool that higher education has to serve the goal that there is broad diversity in the student body.”

The case concerns Abigail Noel Fisher, a white woman who argued that she was unfairly denied admission to the University of Texas because of its policy of taking race, among many other factors, into consideration for admission.

Fisher graduated this year from Louisiana State University.

Interest in the case is high. Dozens of universities, education organizations and the federal government have filed briefs with the Supreme Court in anticipation.

“Diversity prepares students to engage with the modern world, but that is not its only benefit,” stated a brief filed by 40 education groups, including the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “Diversity serves time-honored, indispensable goals . . . it prepares them to maintain the robust democracy that is their inheritance; and it enables them to overcome barriers that separate them from one another.”

A recent report from the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan research group, said that race-neutral policies have worked in some of those states. But affirmative action supporters have questioned its conclusions.

Race-conscious policies have long been a controversial topic. The Texas case will turn on how the justices interpret the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Meanwhile, colleges and universities have tried to maneuver through a sensitive landscape.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which fielded 29,501 undergraduate applications this year, employs what school officials call a “highly nuanced and multi-faceted approach” that entails consideration of "more than 40 factors."

Race is considered as one of the potential “plus” factors. Currently, roughly one-third of the university’s undergraduates are ethnic minorities.

At Clemson, Wiles said that only students who have the ability to do the work are accepted, and SAT scores are important. But he said the school also looks at recommendations, extracurricular achievement and other factors, including race, and it’s used for the sake of a more diverse enrollment.

Roger L. Worthington, an education professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and the school’s former chief diversity officer, said minority students nationwide still lag far behind their white counterparts in higher education.

Minority enrollments have increased modestly, he said, but haven’t kept up with the growth of their populations.

“Unless these disparities are corrected, in part by the continuation of affirmative action, the U.S. economic situation seems likely to continue downward rather than toward a robust recovery,” Worthington said.

Todd Gaziano, who directs legal studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization, argued that affirmative action policies actually hurt the students they’re intended to help because elite schools that accept poorly prepared students doom them to getting lower grades.

“It’s a terrible recipe to disadvantage the minority students,” he said, adding the students would do better if they went to less competitive schools.

California became the first state, in 1996, where voters decided to amend the state constitution to forbid racial preferences in college admissions. A year after a state law prohibited race-conscious admissions decisions, the number of African-American, Latino and Native American freshmen at UCLA and the flagship Berkeley campus of the University of California dropped by more than 50 percent, according to a brief in the Texas case filed by the university.

“The University of California simply has not recovered,” said Gary Orfield, a professor at UCLA and an expert on school desegregation and civil rights laws. “We have a much lower level of access for Latino and African-American students than we had back then, in terms of their getting admitted to our flagship campuses.”

In 2011, only 130 African-American students were among an entering freshman class of 4,443 at the Berkeley campus. But records some minority student enrollment, such as Latinos, has been rebounding since the ban on racial preferences in admissions.

Michael Doyle contributed to this story.

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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