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Affirmative Action in University Admissions (2013 Version)

By October 9, 2013Legal
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The University of Texas at Austin (the University) implemented an admissions policy that considered race as a factor in their selection process. In 2008, Abigail Fisher applied for admission to the University and was denied admission. Fisher sued the University and some of its officials, claiming their admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In deciding whether a university’s admissions policy violate the Equal Protection Clause, the courts must apply what is known as the “strict scrutiny” standard which was set up in Grutter v. Bollinger. First, a court must determine whether the university has “a reasoned, principled explanation” for using race as a tool to create diversity and that “such diversity is essential to its educational mission.” A university cannot use racial balancing. Rather, race must be an element in determining admissions. Secondly, a university must prove that the admissions process “ensure[s] that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes an applicant’s race or ethnicity the defining feature of his or her application.”

The university’s policy must also be narrowly tailored to fit the stated goals of the school. The policy cannot be a mere quota, set aside for applicants of a specific race or ethnicity. Finally, the courts must give deference to a university’s “reasoned, principled explanation for the academic decision” they have made, even when using race as a tool to create diversity.

In this case, the University chose to use race as a component of their admissions policy after studies found that they lacked a “critical mass” of minority students. They based that conclusion on two different studies. In one study, classrooms containing between 5 and 24 students were found to lack a significant number of minority students. And in the second study, the University relied on reports from students regarding their “interaction in the classroom.” The University ultimately decided that the use of race as a factor in admission would correct the issue of the lack of a “critical mass” and would advance the academic environment of the students.

The Supreme Court held that the district court was correct to take into consideration the reasoning behind the University’s use of race in admissions and to give their decision deference. However, the district court erred in failing to apply strict scrutiny to the implementation of the policy. The Court said, “Under Grutter, strict scrutiny must be applied to any admissions program using racial categories or classifications.” It said, “The University must prove that the means it chose to attain that diversity are narrowly tailored to its goal.” The University is given no deference in regards to this point. The court must be completely satisfied that it is necessary for the University to use race in the admissions process and is the only means of obtaining such diversity.

On the second, and most important aspect of the Grutter analysis, the Court of Appeals held that Fisher could challenge only whether the University’s decision to use “race as a factor in admissions was made in good faith.” On this part of the test the Court of Appeal held that when considering this challenge the court would assume the University made the decision in good faith and would be up to Fisher to negate. The Supreme Court overturned that saying it was “at odds with Grutter‘s command that ‘all racial classifications imposed by government must be analyzed by a reviewing court under strict scrutiny.'”

Because the correct standard was not used, the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case to the district court with instructions to apply the Grutter test correctly. This means that the University will have the burden at all times to prove that race is not a key determination in admission and their policy is narrowly tailored to fit their goal of creating a diverse student body.