STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Not for the first time, the Supreme Court is considering affirmative action in college admissions. Twice before, the court has ruled that colleges and universities could consider race and ethnicity as one of many factors in admissions as long as there are no quotas.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
One ruling came in 1978; another came in 2003. The issue returned in 2013, by which time the composition of the court had changed, raising the possibility of some different ruling.
INSKEEP: The court considered a case from Texas, then sent it back to a lower court. And now it arrives at the High Court again. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: There is a long and often tortured racial history at the University of Texas. It was segregated by law until 1950, when the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, ordered it to admit the grandson of a slave to the school's all-white law school. By 1996, UT operated like most other schools. It had a selective admissions system that sought to increase the number of minorities, using race and ethnicity as one factor in evaluating applicants. The plan, however, ran into a buzz saw in the lower courts, which ruled that the university could not consider race in any way in admissions. The number of minorities at the school quickly plummeted by 40 percent, sending the Texas political and educational worlds scrambling. Soon, the state legislature enacted a law known as the 10 percent plan, guaranteeing anyone who graduated in the top 10 percent of his or her high school class a place at UT. And since Texas public schools are largely segregated by housing pattern, that increased the number of minorities. As the minority population in the state surged, however, minority enrollment was still well below where it had been under the old affirmative action plan. So when the Supreme Court in 2003 reaffirmed the limited use of race as a factor in admissions, UT started using it again. The way the system works is that three-quarters of the UT slots are reserved by law for students in the top 10 percent of their class. The other quarter of the seats are filled by so-called holistic review, combining class rank with SAT scores, independently graded essays and other factors, like leadership, awards, special skills and race and ethnicity. Enter Abigail Fisher, a white student who didn't get into UT in 2008 and claimed she was the victim of discrimination because of her race.
ABIGAIL 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 denied that, saying Fisher's grades and test scores were simply too low to get her in, no matter what her activities or her race. The first time the case was argued, then-UT president William Powers stood outside the Supreme Court and defended the university's approach. No university, he said, would fill all of its slots based on class rank alone because not everyone a university might want would necessarily be in the top 10 percent.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
WILLIAM POWERS: You could have been the student body president. You could have been the winner of the state math contest, and you have zero chance to get into the University of Texas.
TOTENBERG: The Supreme Court pondered the case in 2013 and, after eight months, sent it back with the suggestion that the lower court had deferred too much to the school's claims of good faith. But after taking another look, that appeals court again upheld the UT plan as constitutional. Now the case is back at the Supreme Court with four justices who avowedly oppose any consideration of race and one, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is deeply suspicious of affirmative action programs. The lawyers and strategists who financed and promoted the Fisher case for seven years - well after she graduated from another school - have declined interview requests. But their brief contends that what UT really wants is an affirmative action program for the children of relatively affluent minorities who attend good schools but fall short of the class rank cutoff. The University's lawyer, Greg Garre, calls that a perverse fabrication.
GREG GARRE: Students coming in through holistic review - African-American and Hispanic students - actually have higher SAT scores than their counterparts coming in through the top 10 percent law. And in fact, if you look at 2008, the year that Ms. Fisher's application was decided, the holistic admits, minority admits faired better academically at the University of Texas than top 10 percent admits.
TOTENBERG: But Ilya Shapiro of the conservative Cato Institute, who filed a friend of the court brief supporting Fisher, is unpersuaded.
ILYA SHAPIRO: This holistic review for that little sliver of the admissions pie is a black box.
TOTENBERG: Today's argument takes place at a time of particular racial sensitivity and unrest in the country, with videos of police shootings spurring Black Lives Matter protests on city streets and on college campuses, where minority students complain bitterly of feeling disrespected and isolated. The Cato Institute's Shapiro subscribes to the theory pioneered by some social scientists that affirmative action actually promotes that isolation on campus.
SHAPIRO: Racial preferences take racial minorities that would otherwise be at very good schools and bump them up a notch to some place where they end up being disproportionately in the lower 10, 25 percent of the academic population. And precisely that feeling of not being good enough produces disaffection. That produces feelings of loneliness and not fitting in.
GARRE: I think it's a fairly cynical way of looking at things.
TOTENBERG: The university's Greg Garre contends moreover that the theory Shapiro is talking about is disproved by the record at UT.
GARRE: African-Americans and Hispanics coming in through the holistic review plan have performed well academically at the University of Texas.
TOTENBERG: Abigail Fisher's lawyers contend that the holistic review is unnecessary because the top 10 percent plan creates enough diversity. And for the first time, they seem to challenge the idea previously accepted by the Supreme Court that state universities have a compelling interest in admitting a diverse student body in the first place. Justice Kennedy - likely the key vote in today's case - has long agreed that having a diverse student body is sufficiently important to justify consideration of race in admissions, but only if other race-neutral systems have been tried and failed, like consideration of economic status instead. Again, Greg Garre.
GARRE: We have a record of 7 years during which the University of Texas tried all the race-neutral alternatives that Ms. Fisher has pointed to, and we know what happened; diversity plummeted.
TOTENBERG: That assertion, however, may not be enough for Justice Kennedy, who, while embracing the idea of diversity, has yet to see an affirmative action plan he thought was justified in fact. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.