It’s Hard to Admit

In spring 2008, thousands of high school students were rejected from their first choice universities. These students mourned, sulked and then ended up at different colleges. Some ended up loving their second choice alma maters, some transferred. And one, Abigail Fisher of Sugar Land, Texas, decided that she was rejected for being white (in truth, she was rejected because of bad grades) and then decided to sue.

Since last Wednesday, the Supreme Court has been hearing arguments for Fisher vs. University of Texas, the “affirmative action” case that could completely outlaw race as a factor for admissions consideration within the UT system. While the result will not affect the California public universities — which cannot operate under affirmative action, as per 1996’s Prop. 209 — the ruling will alter the debate around the mission of public universities and the importance of diversity on college campuses.

As UC Student Regent Jonathan Stein noted, the University of California was cited in the Supreme Court’s 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case — which outlawed race-based quotas, but allowed race to be considered as part of a holistic admissions process in the interest of reaching a “critical mass” of campus diversity — as an example of a system trying to maintain racial diversity without affirmative action. If the Supreme Court was looking to the UC system for an example of the diversity magic bullet, Stein said, the lesson from the UC system’s plummeting minority enrollment rates is that there is no such solution. The discussion isn’t over either: As recently as last spring, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court tossed out another attempt to appeal the proposition.

Student Regent-designate Cinthia Flores called the results of Prop. 209 “devastating” for diversity, and the numbers back her up: The number of black, Latino and American Indian California residents admitted to UC Berkeley between 1995 and 1998 dropped by 58 percent under 209 and at UCLA, 53 percent. Judges who still hope for a magic bullet, take note. In this instance, Fisher, who ended up attending Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, maintains that attending this lesser school has affected her long-term success.

“It is critical in Texas to be a UT graduate,” her lawyer said. “She can’t have that back.”

This may be true, but many can argue that it is critical in the United States to be an Ivy League grad, to be white, to be male and to come from a wealthy family. Fisher can’t have her UT diploma and some of us will never have these other privileges that would make our lives easier. Ultimately, it is more important to level the playing field and maintain diversity in high education, an important stepping stone, than it is for Fisher — a legacy applicant, who would have been rejected even if she were not white — to nurse her hurt pride.

The University of Texas at Austin has a two-tiered application process. Three-quarters of its spaces are reserved for the top 8 percent of students from Texas high schools (10 percent when Fisher applied), who are automatically admitted. Fisher’s chances were ruined not by her race, but by her grades, which put her outside this tier and into a group that also looks at six other factors, including extracurricular activity, leadership potential, community service, legacy and, of course, race. Gregory Garre, lawyer for the University of Texas, notes that even if Fisher had achieved a perfect score on these other factors (i.e. if she were black), she still would not have been admitted because her academic performance was simply too poor to make up for this “personal achievement score.”

Details of the UT system’s policy aside, it is crucial to uphold Grutter and at least have the flexibility of looking at race as a factor in holistic admission. Though other factors, such as income, are large components of the achievement gap, race affects so many other life chances — from stereotype threat to the fact black students are nearly three times less likely to be admitted to highly selective colleges even when controlling for income — that it is not outrageous to at least consider it when evaluating personal achievement and struggles.

In this vein, nearly 100 briefs have been filed in the case: 17 in support of Fisher, and 73 in support of the University of Texas; the supporters of the University of Texas include Teach for America, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ivy Leagues and our very own University of California. These groups recognize that diversity on college campuses is a necessary first step to promoting opportunity and diversity in the work force and ultimately, equality in the United States.