GM 16-042

Supreme Court Rules University May Use Race as a Factor in Admissions

On June 23, 2016, the United States Supreme Court upheld by a 4-3 margin the University of Texas’ admission policy, which uses race as a factor in its “holistic” review of a candidate’s qualifications. This the second time the Court has reviewed the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case. In 2013, the Court sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit with direction to reexamine its ruling. We reported to you on that decision in our General Memorandum 13-055 (June 28, 2013).

The primary issue in the case is whether the University used race in an unconstitutional manner when it chose the incoming class in 2008 and did not admit Abigail Fisher, a white candidate. The Court’s ruling last week upholds the University’s policy but the opinion by Justice Kennedy makes clear that the Court views the University’s policy as unique and that this indicates that other universities using differing approaches may not pass constitutional muster. While Kennedy continued to approve of the University’s goal of a racially diverse student body, he said that a change in circumstances could require a change in policy in order to keep it constitutionally sound. He also ordered the University to regularly evaluate its policy.

The thrust of the Court’s ruling is that schools whose admissions policies consider a candidate’s race as only a factor will likely be in compliance with the Court’s holding.

The goal of diversity also remained intact. Kennedy quoted from his 2013 opinion in Fisher I that the compelling interest required by strict scrutiny includes “obtaining the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity.” He also wrote that “enrolling a diverse student body ‘promotes cross-racial understanding, helps to break down racial stereotypes, and enables students to better understand persons of different races.'” Kennedy added, that “student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society.”

We note that the same organization that brought the Fisher challenge in Texas has filed suits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. This means that Fisher II may not yet be the final word on race and admissions in higher education.

Please let us know if we may provide further information regarding this case.