Supreme Court upholds affirmative action with no impact on UC policy

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On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the consideration of race as a factor in college admissionsa decision that has been met with both optimism and frustration by those affiliated with the UC system, as its admissions policies will not be affected by the verdict.

Awarding a major victory to supporters of affirmative action, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the University of Texas at Austin’s admissions policy brought by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who claimed the University of Texas had rejected her on the grounds of race. In November, UC President Janet Napolitano and the chancellors of the university’s 10 campuses filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the University of Texas.

Despite the verdict, California’s Proposition 209 still forbids the UC system from considering an individual’s race in its admissions process.

In a 4-3 decision, the court echoed the university’s brief, in which campus leaders testified to the difficulty of achieving a student body reflective of California’s diversity under race-blind policies. Justice Anthony Kennedy referenced these sentiments in his majority opinion, arguing that universities are owed “considerable deference” in promoting qualities such as “student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.”

The decision also validates another brief filed by the campus Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, which highlighted the benefits of racial diversity from a social scientific perspective. To Stephen Menendian, the assistant director of the institute, the parallels between the University of Texas at Austin and UC Berkeley are evident — both are flagship campuses of large public university systems in majority non-white states.

“The campus climates at both aren’t great,” Menendian said. “There’s a feeling of racial isolation.”

But the UC system has not been permitted to use an individual’s race as a component of its admissions criteria since the passage of Proposition 209. In this case, the state-level legislation supersedes the court’s decision.

“While it is good news on a critical issue for the country, the decision does not directly impact the University of California,” according to a university statement.

Still, Menendian argued, the university could do more to encourage “race-conscious” policies without considering an individual applicant’s race. The university could, for example, give greater consideration to students who come from predominantly non-white or disadvantaged high schools, he said.

Similarly, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said he recognized that the university was “unilaterally disarmed” by state law but said there are “further steps” that could be taken to increase diversity. He advocated incorporating wealth — which he said is a better measure of intergenerational discrimination than income — into admissions criteria.

“If you construct a truly fair system, then racial diversity will follow,” Kahlenberg said.

Some, however, have expressed concern with the Thursday decision. Diane Schachterle, the vice president of the American Civil Rights Institute, called the court’s opinion a “muddled, fickle decision” that “will only affect UT,” adding that the verdict “means racial discrimination will continue.”

Since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, the university has struggled to maintain a student body reflective of California’s population, even as it has implemented policies such as an outreach task force and holistic review of applications in an effort to bolster diversity.

In 1995, black students made up 6.7 percent of the incoming class at UC Berkeley, but by 1998, the figure was 3.7 percent. In 2015, freshman black students represented just 2.8 percent of the incoming class.

“Despite the multitude of race-neutral initiatives UC continues to work on … the enrollment of students from historically underrepresented minority groups falls short,” said Kate Moser, a university spokesperson, in an email. “Race-conscious admissions programs would help ensure access for qualified underrepresented minority students.”

Contact Sahil Chinoy at [email protected].