Supreme Court to Hear Case That Could Overturn Landmark Decision on Educational Diversity

September 24, 2012
President Lee C. Bollinger is closely watching a Supreme Court case about educational diversity.

When the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments Oct. 10 in the case of "Fisher vs. the University of Texas," colleges and universities will be looking for hints as to how the court might rule on a case which could upend long-held admission procedures at their schools.

Few people will be paying closer attention than Lee C. Bollinger. When he was president of the University of Michigan, he led that school’s litigation in a precedent-setting case about diversity in higher education that was decided by the Supreme Court.

In its landmark 2003 ruling "Grutter v. Bollinger," the high court found that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions.” As a result, the University of Michigan Law School—and thousands of undergraduate and graduate schools throughout the nation—could continue to consider race as one of many factors that go into admissions decisions.

“Affirmative action in higher education is an issue of enormous significance for the country,” said Bollinger, now in his 11th year as Columbia’s president. “There is no other way to have the levels of diverse student bodies that we have come to value so much in American higher education and that have been so important to the American society.”

In assessing applicants, Columbia, like many of its peer institutions, considers geography, religion, academic and extracurricular interests, family circumstance, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, as well as race and ethnicity. For the last five years, Columbia has been first among highly ranked universities in the percentage of African Americans enrolling as first-year students, according to the "Journal of Blacks in Higher Education." The College and Engineering School have among the highest percentages of socio-economic diversity, with 17% of its students receiving federal Pell Grants.

Seventy-three separate briefs supporting the University of Texas have been filed in the Fisher case representing, among others, the Obama administration, 15 states, 86 members of Congress and 57 major corporations. Many briefs are signed by multiple parties including Columbia’s, which represents all eight Ivy League institutions, MIT, the University of Chicago, and Stanford, Vanderbilt and Duke universities.

“Diversity encourages students to question their assumptions, to understand that wisdom and contributions to society may be found where not expected, and to gain an appreciation of the complexity of the modern world,” argues the brief, which was drafted by former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman.

Weighing in against are 17 briefs from organizations including the Cato Institute, the Center for Individual Rights and the Pacific Legal Foundation.

The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, who applied for admission to the University of Texas in 2008. She argues that her credentials exceeded those of many minority students who were admitted, but she did not get in because she is white.

If the University of Texas loses and "Grutter v. Bollinger" is overturned, Bollinger worries “it would have a drastic negative effect on racial and ethnic diversity on the leading campuses across the United States, including our own.” He points to what happened at Berkeley and UCLA after 1996, when Proposition 209 amended California’s constitution to prohibit public institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex, ethnicity and gender.

In 1998, the first year in which race-neutral admission policies were implemented at the University of California, admission rates and the percentage of admitted students from underrepresented minority groups fell at every campus in the state system, according to an amicus brief filed by the president and chancellors of UC in support of the University of Texas.

They support returning to the admission practices in place before 1996. “At Berkeley and UCLA in particular, the number of African American, Latino, and Native American freshmen dropped by over 50 percent,” the chancellors’ brief said.

The State of California is also supporting the defendant, noting that its own institutions have not been successful in achieving sufficient diversity to prepare students for social and civic life after graduation. “If California, with the broad diversity in its population, cannot achieve a suitable level of diversity at its universities, other states, with more homogenous overall populations, will face even greater challenges,” its brief says.

Exactly his point, says Bollinger. “Since 1954, this has been one of our society’s greatest achievements: that we have gone from the decision of "Brown v. Board of Education" to where we are today, though we’re not by any means done. I don’t for a second treat this as just another conversation about an important legal question. I think this is one of those issues that define the country and whether we will continue on the path set by Brown.”

—by Bridget O'Brian