UC files brief supporting University of Texas in federal affirmative action case

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The long-standing U.S. Supreme Court battle over affirmative action has reignited with the court’s June decision to reconsider a controversial case, prompting several universities nationwide — including the University of California — to take a stance.

After Abigail Fisher, a young, white female college applicant, filed a complaint alleging that the University of Texas at Austin had not accepted her on the basis of her race, UC President Janet Napolitano and the 10 campus chancellors throughout the system together filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the University of Texas at Austin in an ongoing federal affirmative action case between Fisher and the university.

The University of Texas at Austin, should the Supreme Court decision favor the plaintiff in the affirmative action case, might see a similar fate to the University of California, whose racial composition has, in recent decades, not reflected the racial and ethnic diversity of its state’s population.

In the brief, UC leaders shared testimony of the university’s own difficulties promoting diversity under a prohibition of race-conscious admission decisions.

Since the implementation of California’s Proposition 209 in 1996, which effectively banned affirmative action in the state’s public universities, the populations of underrepresented minorities have continued to decline in UC admissions — particularly at the university’s most selective schools, UC Berkeley and UCLA.

In 1995, before the proposition passed, black students made up 6.7 percent and 7.4 percent of the entering classes at UC Berkeley and UCLA, respectively. By 1998, these numbers shrank to 3.7 percent and 3.5 percent. In fall 2014, the percentage of freshman black students admitted to the campus was 2.9 percent.

In the brief, UC leaders described the university’s years of “experimentation” with a range of race-neutral approaches to accommodate the state law and explained that in current circumstances, competitive public universities “cannot maintain historic levels of diversity within their student bodies — much less reflect in their student bodies a growing state population of underrepresented minorities” using such methods.

The university’s leaders pointed to the prohibition of affirmative action policies as a significant barrier in its efforts to create more diverse campus student bodies, but others have criticized the university for not taking enough steps on its own, despite restraints, to offset the imbalance.

“The campus administrations hide behind Prop 209 and make sad faces,” said Anant Sahai, an associate professor in the campus department of electrical engineering and computer sciences and campus alumnus, in an email. The money spent over two decades in pursuing diversity across the 10-campus system, Sahai added, has been insignificant.

In Berkeley campus climate surveys, black students and other underrepresented minorities have indicated that they feel isolated and marginalized on campus, said Stephen Menendian, assistant director and director of research at the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. He added that it is very difficult to improve climate without a “critical mass” of underrepresented individuals on campus.

“Diversity has to be part of that solution,” Menendian said.

Earlier this year, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced the creation of an African American Initiative designed to achieve that critical mass of black campus community members through various outreach strategies.

For Marisa Johnson, a UC Berkeley sophomore who recounted the surprise she felt when she found so few fellow black students on campus during her freshman year, the initiative’s emphasis on increasing black students’ presence at UC Berkeley is a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, she acknowledged that there still is work to be done.

The Fisher case will be reheard by the Supreme Court on Dec. 9.

Suhauna Hussain is the lead higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @suhaunah.