Law

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The U.S. Supreme Court today returns to the issue of affirmative action in higher education. Over the last 35 years, the high court has twice ruled that race may be one of many factors in determining college admissions as long as there are no racial quotas. Now, just nine years after that last decision, the justices have decided to revisit the issue in a different context. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The University of Texas has a special history when it comes to race. It was segregated by law until 1950, when the Supreme Court, in a landmark case, ruled that UT had to admit to its all-white law school the grandson of a slave. Today, the student leading the battle on race is white. She was an honor roll student who played the cello and volunteered in the community. And when she didn't get in, she went to Louisiana State University rather than one of the other Texas schools that offered her admission.

ABIGAIL FISHER: My name is Abigail Fisher. I dreamt of going to UT ever since the second grade. My dad went there. My sister went there. It was a tradition I wanted to continue.

TOTENBERG: But because of the way the system works in Texas, Fisher didn't get in. She claims she was rejected because of her race. The university categorically denies that. But to understand her case, you have to know some history. Until 1996, UT operated like most other state schools; it had a selective admissions system that included using race or ethnicity as a factor. In 1996, however, a federal appeals court ruled that any racial considerations in admission were unconstitutional. The immediate effect was that minority enrollment plummeted by 40 percent. And by 1998 the state legislature enacted a fix. State law now guaranteed admission to all students in the top 10 percent of their high school class. The top 10 law worked, up to a point. Because most high schools in Texas are largely segregated along racial and ethnic lines - with schools in the Rio Grande Valley, for instance, almost entirely Hispanic - the numbers of minorities admitted to the UT rebounded. The school says, however, that even as the state minority population was surging - it's now over 50 percent - its own minority admissions remain stagnant. In 2002, four years after the top 10 plan went into effect, minority enrollment was still below the 1996 affirmative action levels. So when the Supreme Court in 2003 ruled in favor of affirmative action, UT added race as one of the factors that could be considered for those applicants not in the top 10 percent. In 2008, when Abigail Fisher applied, that was 20 percent of the incoming class - an essential 20 percent, according to the university.

BILL POWERS: There is not a university or business or whatever that would simply say we need to hire five people and tell their HR department, OK, go take 100 applicants and just rank them by their grade point average.

TOTENBERG: Bill Powers is president of the University of Texas.

POWERS: There are other features that we're looking for. For example, architecture, music, art, geosciences, people who won the state math contest that are in the top 12 or 15 percent of their class.

TOTENBERG: While the university contends that race is a very small part of the admissions decision, Abigail Fisher believes race was a decisive factor in her rejection.

FISHER: There were people in my class with lower grades who weren't in all the activities I was in who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin.

TOTENBERG: The university flatly says that is untrue. The way it admits the non-ranked students is this: It combines two scores. The first is grades and board scores, called the academic index. The second is what the school calls the personal achievement index. It's based on two independently graded essays plus six other factors: leadership potential, honors and awards, work experience, community service, extracurricular activities and special circumstances. Only this last category, special circumstances, can include race or coming from a home where English is not spoken, or economic circumstances. The personal achievement index score, a maximum of six, is combined with the academic score and then plotted on a graph. Based on the available number of seats, everyone above a certain combined grade on the graph is admitted and everyone below is rejected. Gregory Garre represents the university.

GREGORY GARRE: Even if Abigail Fisher had received a perfect personal achievement index score, she would not have been admitted to the fall 2008 class of the University of Texas because her academic achievement index was simply not high enough to compete with the other students who applied that year. She would not have been admitted, no matter what her race.

TOTENBERG: Fisher's lawyers question that, but more importantly, they contend that any consideration of race is gratuitous. Edward Blum helped put Fisher's case together.

EDWARD BLUM: At the University of Texas, it was simply unnecessary to add race and ethnicity into the mix because the top 10 percent plan was already doing a completely thorough job of creating a diverse student body.

GARRE: It's simply not true to say that diversity was improving or improving significantly under the 10 percent plan in the absence of the plan at issue here.

TOTENBERG: The university's Greg Garre says that in 2002, with the top 10 plan firmly in place, African-American enrollment was actually dropping and that Hispanics remained woefully underrepresented. Black and Hispanic enrollment was at 17.7 percent, he notes, while the state's population was almost 45 percent black and Hispanic. But Abigail Fisher's advocates countered that to look at underrepresentation is illegal. Again, Edward Blum.

BLUM: When the University of Texas looks at statewide demographics, that is a backdoor quota.

TOTENBERG: The University of Texas case is of great concern, and not just to the academic community. Ninety-eight friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed in the case. Seventy-three of them urge the court to uphold the affirmative action plan, among them, a brief filed by a majority of the Fortune Top 100 U.S. companies. But for Abigail Fisher, the issue is one of morality and values.

FISHER: I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does this set for others?

TOTENBERG: There are at least four justices who are pretty clearly on record as agreeing with that. In 2003, when the court upheld limited affirmative action programs, the 5-to-4 decision was written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But she's retired and been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, a dedicated foe of affirmative action. That would seem to leave Justice Anthony Kennedy as the decisive vote in this case. While in the past he has accepted the need for diversity in college admissions, he has never seen a program that he thought met constitutional muster. And because Justice Elena Kagan is recused from this case - presumably because she worked on the case when she was in the Obama administration - the best that affirmative action supporters can hope for is a 4-4 tie, leaving the status quo in place. Most experts think even that is pretty unlikely, that the court accepted this case for review to either reverse its past affirmative action rulings or to make such plans possible in theory but not in practice. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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