Last week, the Supreme Court heard opening arguments in the ﬁrst afﬁrmative action case to reach the high court in nearly a decade.
The justices asked a series of questions on the constitutionality of admissions practices that take race into account as a factor. This raises the stakes for institutions of higher education across the U.S.
The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, was brought as a lawsuit against the University of Texas (UT) at Austin for allegedly rejecting Abigail Fisher, 22, four years ago on the basis of her race: white. Fisher, who barely missed the cutoff for automatic admission to UT Austin, graduated earlier this year from Louisiana State University.
Afﬁrmative action could be prohibited by law if the court rules in favor of Fisher and declares the practice unconstitutional as a form of “reverse discrimination.”
“No matter how this case turns out, the Admissions Ofﬁce will continue to work with University leadership to maintain a process that allows us to sustain the quality and diversity of the student body moving forward,” Ellen Kim, Hopkins’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
The legal suit has become a repeat of sorts of the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the court narrowly upheld afﬁrmative action as part of a holistic admissions process at The University of Michigan on the grounds that it is a force for diversity—and therefore for good—on college campuses.
The court has grown more conservative over the past nine years, however, prompting the possibility that race-conscious admissions policies at colleges across the nation may not be long for the law books.
“I think the consideration of race and diversity is always in the best interests of school,” freshman Lamin Sonko said. “Because when you are at a school that looks toward educating students and young people it is always going to be advantageous to have a diversity of opinions, which is why race is a factor.
“I think it’d be bad for schools because then you’re not taking into account, you’re ignoring the statistical factor that a lot of minority youth are at a disadvantage. That would deﬁnitely be negative because then many minority students who are at a historical or statistical disadvantage are not getting the same opportunity that they should be getting.”
Diversity, for Hopkins, is a consideration when admitting a new freshman class.
“The Undergraduate Admissions Ofﬁce is committed to recruiting and enrolling a diverse class that includes talented individuals from varying backgrounds and life experiences,” Kim wrote. “We consider each student’s ability to be successful at Hopkins as well as what they will contribute to the student body — both in and outside of the classroom. We believe the best way to evaluate students to that end is through a holistic review process that takes many factors into consideration as we aim to enroll a class that yields a dynamic learning environment for all of our students.”
The opportunity offered by Affirmative Action to minorities is important, freshman Ahmed Elsayyad said.
“I do think it would be advantageous for both underrepresented and overrepresented students if race continued to be a factor in the admissions process,” Elsayyad said. “For underrepresented students it would allow them to overcome the obstacles that are currently preventing them from seeking higher education.”
Elsayyad said he agreed with past Supreme Court decisions holding that diversity in institutions of higher learning is a compelling state interest.
“What most people don’t realize is that if we didn’t incorporate race as a factor then minority students would continue to decline in the applicant pools, in the acceptance pools and schools would continue to grow their overrepresented student population which would be disadvantageous for those students who would be not be in a position where they could interact with people of different cultures, races, and perspectives.
“This, in turn, would inhibit their ability to interact once they do get a job,” he said. “So, yes, it’s easy to say it’s advantageous for the underrepresented students, but it’s also advantageous to the overrepresented students.”
Not all students at Hopkins are entirely comfortable with afﬁrmative action and race-conscious admissions policies, however.
Christina Socias, a junior and a first generation born American from two Cuban political refugees, disagrees with affirmative action.
“Reward students and individuals for merit not for shallow tangible qualities,” Socias wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “You will feel that much more satisfied for your accomplishment knowing you earned it and it was not handed to you on account of your skin color and ethnic minority.
“Also, what about that Caucasian who grew up in a one parent household with more disadvantages than myself, a hispanic female? Where is the affirmative action for the white kid?”
In the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, Justice Sandra Day O’Conner wrote in the majority opinion that, “the Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”
While many conservative court watchers are hoping that nine years has actually been enough, others think that afﬁrmative action continues to be necessary and will be for the foreseeable future.
“The way I still see it now is that afﬁrmative action at the college level, especially for schools likes Hopkins, high caliber schools like Hopkins, most students applying are going to be neck and neck in qualiﬁcations and, in my opinion, it’s okay to give the advantage to the more diverse student in that situation because schools are always looking to increase their academic potential,” Sonko said.