U.S. Supreme Court to hear college admissions affirmative action case

The decision could have implications for how public universities make decisions.

by Matt Herbert

As a debate about affirmative action at public universities heads to the U.S. Supreme Court in the fall, University of Minnesota faculty and students are weighing in on the issue.

Affirmative action is a set of different policies that take race, color, religion, sexual orientation, national origin and gender into consideration in the workforce and education admissions.

Abigail Fisher, a Texas high school student, said she was denied admission to the University of Texas because she was white. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin is headed for a hearing in the Supreme Court when it reconvenes in October.

Depending on how far-reaching the Court’s decision is, it could have an impact on how public universities across the country make admission decisions.

 In Texas, the top 10 percent of students in each high school are admitted to all public universities in the state. Under Texas’ affirmative action policies, minority groups are admitted under more vague terms to increase diversity in the higher-education system.

Fisher barely missed the 10 percent mark and sued in 2008. She currently attends Louisiana State University.

Wayne Sigler, director of admissions at the University of Minnesota, said there is no precise definition of affirmative action at the University. However, he said the University has admissions policies in which many of the applicant’s characteristics, including race, are considered.

“We don’t weight the factors, and no one factor is the controlling factor — it’s an overall holistic assessment,” Sigler said.

Sigler said the University will be watching the Texas case closely and seeing if there will be any implications for the University.

In his nearly 20 years in admissions at the University, Sigler said he doesn’t ever recall a suit or controversy with a student who didn’t get admitted as a result of their race, gender or sexual orientation.

“We feel we have a responsibility to explain our decision to applicants,” Sigler said. “We would explain how we make decisions and some of the factors that concerned us. We can’t give them a precise formula.”

Michele Goodwin, a law professor at the University whose specialties include ethics and social policy, said many admissions personnel are thinking beyond high grades and exam scores.

 “They’re thinking about life experience, hard work, effort, representation of the institution and personality. It’s not just the person with the highest score that gets in,” she said.

Sigler said the University once used a formula that involved a combination of ACT or SAT scores, class rank and some preparation requirements, but the school moved away from that.

“We moved from something relatively efficient — the formula — to something less efficient but more effective,” Sigler said.

The primary factors that are considered for applications are high school academic coursework, grade point average, class rank and ACT or SAT scores. Secondary factors include outstanding achievements, talents or aptitudes, military service and contribution to the cultural, gender, age, economic, racial or geographic diversity of the student body.

Sigler said the University had to make “a few tweaks but nothing significant” in the freshman admissions policy after a previous affirmative action case involving the University of Michigan Law School in 2003. That decision upheld the practice of affirmative action, but limited how much of a factor it could be in admissions decisions.

Goodwin said she isn’t sure what the court’s decision will be in the Fisher case but said the verdict will have a large impact either way.

“The court is divided, and one could predict this case may be a narrow win for Fisher,” Goodwin said. “It could inspire dialogue on race and education in a more general sense.”

Goodwin said she believes if the court rules in favor of Fisher and overturns affirmative action policies, many college presidents will still make an effort to diversify their institutions.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and an advocate for class-based affirmative action, said higher education institutions need to amend their affirmative action policies.

“Universities should more heavily consider socio-economic disadvantages,” Kahlenberg said. “My hope, as universities move forward, is more emphasis is placed on students that have had to overcome socio-economic obstacles, rather than race.”

Addisalem Tesfaye, president of Black Motivated Women at the University, said while she supports affirmative action as a means of increasing opportunities for minorities, she sees some flaws.

 “There are negative effects with the system because a majority of minorities get in for other reasons besides race,” Tesfaye said. “I got in because of grades and because I proved myself. I constantly have had to prove people wrong.”

Nick Thelemaque, president of the Black Law Students Association at the University, said he is optimistic for the future of equal representation.

“I think 35 years from now, there will be less of a need for affirmative action because people will have a better thought and perspective on culture,” Thelemaque said. “I hope to see more diversity in the workforce and in education.”


-The Associated Press contributed to this report.