‘Fisher’ brings question of race in college admissions to forefront

Small, elite liberal arts institutions strive to create educational environments in which a close-knit group of students learn not only within academically rigorous curricula, but also from one another’s unique perspectives. While building a diverse community has been the goal of the College and peer institutions for several decades, the outcome of Fisher v. University of Texas, which debates a white woman’s claim that the University of Texas at Austin denied her admission due to her race, may cause colleges to re-evaluate race’s role in admissions.

Fisher’s claim 

Fisher originally involved two plaintiffs, Abigail Fisher and Rachel Michalewicz, who were denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. The case was filed with the district court in Texas in 2009. Michalewicz withdrew from the case in 2011, but the case was brought to the Supreme Court in October.

Fisher’s claim against the University of Texas is that her race played a role in her denial of admission. Admissions there operates on a 10-percent plan, which guarantees admission to all applicants who were ranked in the top 10 percent of their high schools. About 75 percent of applicants are admitted this way, and the other 25 percent are considered for additional attributes.

As a high school graduate who was not in the top 10 percent of her class, Fisher was evaluated under the university’s holistic admissions process, in which race is one of several attributes considered.

Case background

The crux of Fisher was predicted in 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that race could play a role in admissions decisions, but not via quotas or otherwise quantifiable means of evaluating race. In Grutter, the University of Michigan’s undergraduate program was found to be in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI, setting the groundwork for the Fisher ruling.

“The court’s decision is very likely to apply to both public and private institutions, although under different legal theories,” Jeff Jones ’66, College counsel in the office of the vice president for finance and administration, said, explaining that while the Equal Protection Clause applies only to public institutions, Title VI applies to both public and private institutions.

In Grutter, the court handed down a 5-4 ruling that race could be used in admissions only if it is used holistically, as one attribute of many that could influence a prospective student’s acceptance. In a separate opinion in 2003, Justice Anthony Kennedy criticized the court, claiming that it had not specified how race could be used. It is suspected that in Fisher, “the use of race [in college admissions] will be very narrowly defined,” Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity Mike Reed ’75 said.

The amicus brief

Reed and Shelley Klein, associate director of the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School, were both involved in drafting an amicus curiae brief that represented the opinions of 37 private, highly selective residential colleges, including Amherst, Middlebury and others committed to maintaining diverse student bodies as part of their educational missions. The brief serves to argue to the court that these institutions have a “compelling educational interest in enrolling broadly diverse – including racially diverse – classes and cannot do so without taking the diversity they strive for into account,” according to the brief.

According to Klein, the intention behind the brief is “to show the perspective of liberal arts colleges, to really highlight the difference between liberal arts college education and state public education and to demonstrate to the Supreme Court that it needs to consider the implications of its decision on the range of higher education.”

The 10-percent plan compared to admissions  at the College

The College employs a holistic admissions process with the goal of matriculating students from diverse racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds. In this process, recommendations, essays and specific “attributes” of each student play a role in admissions decisions, said Dick Nesbitt ’74, director of admissions. This process, he noted, is what separates admission at the College from admission at large state schools where systems like the 10-percent plan are often used.

Ahmmad Brown, diversity recruitment director in Admissions, elucidated how Texas’ 10-percent plan runs counter to the College’s educational philosophy. “We are in a luxurious position to cherry-pick how we want our student body to look – to create a student body that matches our institution’s priorities and philosophy as a whole,” he said. “Racial diversity is a part of that, as are all other parts of diversity.”

Klein explained that if we are to view the 10-percent plan as a race-neutral means of achieving racial diversity on college campuses, only a very narrow type of diversity can be achieved. “[The 10-percent plan] inherently relies on the segregation of public schools,” she said. “If you had integrated public schools … based on what everybody knows about the achievement gap between some students of color and white students … the students of color would be unlikely to be in the top 10 percent.”

Maya Dennis ’13 has firsthand experience with a segregated public school. She attended Elmont High School in Long Island, N.Y., and was part of a predominantly black and Latino student body. Dennis said she lived through the modern-day iteration of scholar W.E.B. DuBois’ “talented 10th” theory that one in 10 black individuals will be successful and the educational system should focus its efforts on this percentage.

“As far as my own experiences go, [my high school] tracks the top 10 percent of students as early as fourth grade,” Dennis explained. “What about 11 to 15 [percent]?”

Diversity recruitment

The College strives for multifaceted diversity in each class year through a combined practice of targeted outreach to underrepresented groups and attribute-based admission in which each applicant is comprehensively analyzed several times.

“We’ve made a very conscious decision to broaden our outreach of socioeconomic diversity,” Nesbitt said. For the College’s Windows on Williams (WoW) program, potential applicants apply to attend a Previews-like weekend of programming at the College, and “the primary cut is what students’ family income would be. Regardless of race, you have to be in a low-income situation” to attend WoW, Nesbitt continued.

During the regular decision admissions process, officers begin by selecting about 400 students to admit via an “early write” based on academic excellence. A significant portion of these, Nesbitt said, are the most compelling first-generation students whose socioeconomic backgrounds will bring different perspectives to the College community.

Then, Admissions looks at students who are not necessarily first-generation, but who bring an “additional diversity” attribute to the table, and “the most compelling of those students get added,” Nesbitt said.

In Fisher’s case, this is the issue at the heart of her argument: She is assuming that a student of color took a spot she could have held in the Class of 2012 at the University of Texas at Austin and is suing on the grounds that the school preferred a minority student over her.

Jaliz Albanese ’13 believes the complication of Fisher’s argument is in that she “doesn’t necessarily know what exact factors contributed” to her denial of admission, as race is one of many attributes considered during the admissions process.

Andrea Lindsay ’13 said that “[Fisher’s] argument is fundamentally flawed” and that two arguments can be made against her: First, that she cannot prove that her race permitted her from being admitted and second, that even if a minority student were chosen over her, it is an opportunity that that student likely would not have had, historically. “If you are serious about acknowledging white privilege, you can’t say that policies like [holistic admissions] that take into account race are unfair, because you inherently have privilege in any question of race,” she said.

“If college campuses are meant to be a microcosm of the ‘real world,’ admissions must take several facets of identity into account, one of which includes race,” Albanese continued.

However, in terms of race and socioeconomic background, both Nesbitt and Brown noted that underrepresented students in these areas of diversity would not apply to the College with such frequency if Admissions did not make a concerted effort to seek them out. Many of these potential applicants do not know about the College or consider it a viable option due to a lack of familiarity with elite liberal arts colleges or higher education in general.

Nesbitt explained that, in addition to the WoW program, Admissions also executes targeted outreach efforts to attract minority student populations that, statistically, otherwise would not apply to the College.

Racial and socioeconomic disparity before college

Dennis said that this phenomenon of lack of knowledge regarding educational options is “not an accident” but is due to the history of segregation and racial and socioeconomic disparity in school systems. “[Holistic admissions programs are] working to fix a system that puts those students at a disadvantage,” she said. “It’s not a perfect way, but it is finding a way to undo the social injustices that play out every day.”

Reed said that it is this kind of disparity that the College – and Admissions in particular – tries to address in making decisions within the context of how a student has achieved within the context of her high school background.

Regarding top-performing minority students, Reed acknowledged that “it’s a very small pool” for obvious reasons, such as the sociocultural and economic disparity between minority and white populations that has existed since slavery.

Reed explained that the College tries to model its student body on an “approximate mirroring” of the country, which requires recruiting students of color who otherwise would not apply.

Educational philosophy of holistic admissions

Carmen Whalen, professor of history and associate dean of institutional diversity, elucidated what she believes is the value of having diverse perspectives in the classroom.

“Racial and ethnic diversity is one type of diversity, and it intersects with the other types of diversity … including socioeconomic, cultural, athletic, geographic, academic and artistic diversity, among others,” she said.

“It’s having diverse groups of students that have pushed Williams and other institutions to have a more diverse curriculum and a more diverse faculty,” Whalen said. “I would argue that colleges and universities have a social responsibility to make their education accessible to as many groups and societies as possible” and that this multifaceted education benefits all students.

David Michael ’13 believes that diversity of thought and experience is crucial in the classroom, but also that the College is in fact not working toward meaningful diversity when it considers racial diversity as an attribute in the admissions process.

“I am a fierce opponent of racial discrimination in any context,” Michael said. “I think it’s people that matter, not categories or groups. In my opinion, one must either hold the opinion that it is morally acceptable to hand out benefits or harms [based on race] or not.”

In terms of the persisting effects of a history of racial injustice and educational inequities, Michael said that “the way to solve that issue is not to change who gets the benefits. You’re not winning the moral high ground” by employing affirmative action policies or holistic admissions processes in which race plays a role because “you’re going to exclude someone on the basis of race,” he said.

Potential outcomes of Fisher

Since racial consciousness became a “driving motivation for many institutions [in] the late 1960s,” according to Reed, the College has cultivated a student body that reflects the larger diversity of the country.

“We will find ways to continue to do what we do, which is making education available to the students who are most deserving and can most benefit from a Williams College education,” Reed said. “We will find ways to do that, but we will abide by the Supreme Court guidelines.”

If any legal changes are decided upon, the court’s decision will be followed with guidance from the federal government on how colleges should implement such changes, Jones explained. He added that one change could be to modify the Common Application so no mention of race is included.

Regardless of possible legal regulations, Jones said that he thinks the College will “still be able to choose what high schools at which to recruit.”

Klein hypothesized that because the 10-percent plan is so unique to large flagship universities like the defendant in Fisher, as well as places where secondary education is de facto segregated, that the court is not likely to demand that institutions like the College implement a similar plan.

“But [the Supreme Court] could say that [they] must try some kind of race-neutral way of admitting students,” like using first-generation or socioeconomic status as a “proxies that would help yield a racially diverse campus,” she said, acknowledging that these proxies are not equal to racial diversity.

Klein added that while potential legal structures that might result from the Supreme Court case might “restrict the range of motion that [colleges] have to pursue [racial diversity], we’re not going back to segregated higher education. No one would be happy or willing to tolerate that. It’s not going to be easy, but … we’re not going to give up that value.”

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