(WASHINGTON) — The Supreme Court ruled today in favor of the University of Texas’ admissions plan, leaving in place the school’s affirmative action policy.
In a 4-3 vote, the justices upheld the judgment of the court of appeals, which ruled in favor of allowing the university to use race as a factor in its admissions process.
“Still, it remains an enduring challenge to our Nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity,” wrote Justice Kennedy for the majority opinion.
What this Means for the Future of Affirmative Action
Today’s ruling was a win for supporters of affirmative action programs and a major defeat for conservatives.
Kennedy, who is often the swing justice, held that UT could continue to use race in a holistic way when considering applicants.
However, he also pointed out that there are restrictions on the school’s freedom to use race. The university must continue to use data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program and to assess whether changing demographics upend the need for the race-conscious policy.
The administration will also need to revisit the program to make sure it is in fact working to diversify the student body.
Despite the ruling, it’s unclear exactly how this will impact race-based admissions policies around the country.
There are at least two pending challenges to the use of race at both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC). While today’s opinion certainly boosts the university standpoint, lawyers for the challengers will argue that the ruling should apply only to Texas.
Justice Samuel Alito, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas, wrote a 51-page dissent, writing that the university wasn’t able to prove how using “systematic racial discrimination” was achieving its goals for diversity.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case, so only 7 justices decided the outcome.
How We Got Here
This is the second time Abigail Fisher, the white woman who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin and filed a lawsuit challenging the university’s use of race in admissions, has had her case decided at the Supreme Court.
In Fisher’s first case, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower courts were too deferential to school administrators and were required to look more closely at the evidence. The 5th Circuit Court stood by its earlier decision, and the case ended up back before the justices.
Texas has a unique admissions program, which first accepts approximately the top 10 percent of graduating seniors from each school in the state and then uses race as part of a holistic analysis (which also includes factors like community service, leadership and family circumstances) in filling the remaining spots.
Speaking outside the Court on behalf of the university, UT Vice President Gregory Vincent said that they were “so very thrilled” about the Supreme Court decision rendered today.
“We believe that the educational benefits of diversity are an important part of our educational experience. We believe that all students benefit from a diverse learning environment. We also were encouraged by the language in the case that spoke to the discretion of the university in making these kinds of admissions decisions,” he said.
Fisher and her attorneys were clearly disappointed with the outcome.
Edward Blum, president of the Project on Fair Representation, argued that racial classifications are one of the “most polarizing policies in America today.”
“As long as universities like the Univ. of Texas continue to treat applicants differently by race and ethnicity, the social fabric that holds us together as a nation will be weakened,” he said in a statement.
The Department of Justice, who argued in support of UT, also weighed in on the decision, saying that a diverse student enrollment is vital to education in the United States.
Going forward, the Department of Justice will continue to stand up for these principles, and to work with colleges and universities to promote diversity in a way that is consistent with the law,” said Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a statement.
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