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Last October, the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Abigail Noel Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that will resolve whether the university should have reintroduced race-based affirmative action in its admissions process in 2005. A decision from the high court is expected this spring.
Fisher was rejected from UT in March 2008 and promptly sued the university, arguing that, but for the fact she is white, she would have been accepted. In response to her suit, numerous amicus briefs were submitted by more than 100 colleges and universities from Maine to California urging the Supreme Court to rule against Fisher and allow UT to continue preferring students by race.
Texas’s other flagship university, Texas A&M University, did not join the others. Why not? Some background on the evolution of UT’s and Texas A&M’s admissions policies will be helpful in answering that question.
Because of a federal court ruling in 1996, UT, A&M and all other Texas colleges and universities were forbidden from giving any student an admission preference based on race or ethnicity. In response to that ruling, the Texas legislature passed the “Top 10 Percent Plan,” which grants automatic admission to any Texas university for students graduating in the top 10 percent of their class. For nearly eight years, UT relied on the Top 10 Percent Plan and, for those not in the top 10 percent, a combination of grades, SAT scores and a few nonracial factors like leadership abilities and economic disadvantage to admit its freshman class.
The Top 10 Percent Plan proved to be hugely effective in creating minority diversity at UT. During the years in which race and ethnicity were forbidden criteria, minority enrollment grew substantially. By 2000, a greater number of blacks and Hispanics were in attendance at UT than in 1995 when the school was still using race-based affirmative action. Then-UT President Larry R. Faulkner praised the program in a newspaper op-ed, writing “…the law is helping us to create a more representative student body and enroll students who perform well academically.”
But all of this changed in 2003 when the Supreme Court gave a fuzzy green light to racial preferences in a pair of cases from the University of Michigan. The day that opinion came down, President Faulkner announced in a press release that the school would begin, once again, to classify students by race and ethnicity and give admission preferences to underrepresented minorities. Fisher’s lawsuit contends that UT’s race-conscious admissions program does not comply with the University of Michigan decision because the Top 10 Percent Plan was a successful race-neutral policy of ensuring minority diversity on the Austin campus, and thus, race must not be a factor at all in UT’s admissions policies.
Unlike UT, however, Texas A&M decided to continue ignoring applicants’ skin color and ethnic heritage. Instead, the university made some critical changes to its admissions policies – ones that were consistent with the University of Michigan opinion and, in the end, fairer for all students.
First, the school abolished its preferential admissions policy for the relatives of alumni – so-called “legacies” – explaining that it was inconsistent to lower the academic admissions bar for lesser-qualified, mostly white students while not doing the same for minorities. Then-A&M President Robert M. Gates was quoted as saying that while some alumni were disappointed, most understood that merit-based admissions policies were the right approach for all Aggies. Second, the school formed the Minority Recruiting Leadership Team, which sent A&M emissaries throughout the state charged with the mission to seek out academically qualified minorities who would not normally consider Texas A&M.
The results of both decisions substantially increased campus diversity at A&M without resorting to race preferences.
By 2008, the year Fisher applied to UT, the two flagship universities’ freshman classes were remarkably similar, even though their admissions policies were dramatically different. At Texas A&M, African-Americans were 3.16 percent of enrollees, while at UT they were 4.4 percent; Hispanics at A&M numbered 13.5 percent, while at UT they were 15.9 percent. And while UT’s minority percentages are a bit higher – yes, racial preferences do increase minority enrollees – they come at a high price, and not just in terms of the financial costs UT has borne defending its system.
UT’s preferences not only adversely affect many white and Asian applicants who have measurably higher academic achievements, but also discredit the achievements of blacks and Hispanics. As Hoover Institution scholar Shelby Steele has written, “…one of the most troubling effects of racial preferences for blacks [and at UT, Hispanics] is a kind of demoralization or, put another way, an enlargement of self-doubt.” It is indeed unfortunate that all minority students at UT are stigmatized by racial preferences simply because the bar is lowered for some. At Texas A&M there cannot be any stigma, because the bar is lowered for none.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Abigail Fisher, as it should, and compels the University of Texas to forgo racial preferences, UT’s admissions office need only look to the example set by Texas A&M to seek a better and ultimately fairer way to achieve campus diversity.
Blum is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the Project on Fair Representation, a not-for-profit legal foundation that provided counsel to Abigail Fisher.
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