The Second Coming of Fisher: UT Austin’s Race-Conscious Admissions Policy Upheld by SCOTUS
On June 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s use of race in its admissions policies and procedures by rendering a decision in the second case brought by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was rejected for admission to UT Austin over eight years ago. In June 2013, the Supreme Court remanded Ms. Fisher’s case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit so it could reconsider the constitutionality of the university’s race-conscious admissions policies and procedures under the strict scrutiny standard articulated in prior affirmative action Supreme Court decisions. In July 2014, the Fifth Circuit again held in favor of UT Austin, finding that its use of race in admissions was constitutional since the university had considered race-neutral alternatives in its admissions process and still could not achieve sufficient diversity. Dissatisfied, Ms. Fisher appealed to the Supreme Court again, arguing that UT Austin’s use of race in its admissions process disadvantaged her and other non-minority applicants.
In the June 23, 2016 Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin decision, the Supreme Court found that UT Austin’s use of race in its admissions process meets the strict scrutiny standard since the university’s goal to provide its students with educational benefits that result from having a diverse student body advances a compelling interest. Further, the Court found that UT Austin validly demonstrated that race-neutral alternatives (e.g., scholarships, outreach programs, etc.) were not sufficient to achieve a diverse student body, even when used in conjunction with Texas’ Ten Percent Plan which guarantees Texas students graduating in the top tenth of their class admission to a public college or university of their choice in the state.
While this decision puts an end to Ms. Fisher’s case against UT Austin and appears to be a win for the use of affirmative action by colleges and universities in admissions, the Court’s decision did include a warning to UT Austin – and colleges and universities across the country — that the need for race-conscious admissions processes may change over time. In the Court’s majority opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy stressed that institutions must periodically reassess the constitutionality of their admissions processes and procedures. Specifically, he stated that the university “must continue to . . . scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.” Given this charge, colleges and universities that use race as a factor in their admissions process should avoid complacency and periodically audit their policies and procedures to ensure compliance with the Court’s mandate.