The U.S. Supreme Court this morning heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (UT), a case that focuses on UT’s limited use of race in its admissions process.
The hearing was the second in three years in the Fisher case, which began in 2008.
The Washington Post reported that the court again displayed its deep divide on this issue, with Chief Justice John Roberts questioning whether the benefit that the university derived was worth “the extraordinary power to consider race,” while the more liberal justices defended UT’s program. (Click here to read the full transcript of the hearing.)
The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, is asking the court to declare UT's race-conscious admissions policy inconsistent with Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 University of Michigan case that confirmed that race can have an appropriate but limited role in college admissions.
UT considers race as a factor in holistic reviews used to admit a small portion of its undergraduate entering class. The majority of the class is admitted via a process where students in the top 10 percent of their Texas high school graduating classes receive automatic admission into Texas state higher education institutions.
The Supreme Court first heard the Fisher case in 2013, when it reaffirmed that obtaining the educational benefit of a diverse student body is a compelling government interest that can justify narrowly tailored consideration of race. However, the justices emphasized that the manner in which race is considered in admissions is subject to “strict scrutiny,” and remanded the case for further consideration of whether UT’s “admissions program is narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that UT had met the strict scrutiny standard, leading Fisher to appeal again. The Supreme Court announced in June that it would review the case.
“Whatever the reason for revisiting the case now, the justices will be hearing it against the backdrop of racial tensions in our society and recent protests, demands and discussions at the University of Missouri and other colleges and universities nationwide,” said ACE’s Lorelle Espinosa and Peter McDonough in an Inside Higher Ed op-ed today. “This timing underscores higher education institutions’ need for engaged, thoughtful and diverse perspectives that will shape the learning of our students, who, in turn, will shape our nation’s future.”
ACE and 37 other higher education associations filed an amicus brief in support of UT in October. Other briefs filed by Fortune 500 businesses, state and federal elected officials and military leaders support higher education’s commitment to ensuring diverse perspectives and engagement on campus.
“UT prepares tomorrow’s leaders for a world that is increasingly global and interconnected. It’s vital that our students have the opportunity to work with students from different backgrounds and experiences — and the freedom to learn from the myriad perspectives, viewpoints and ideas that should flourish on campus,” UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves said in a statement released after the hearing.
A decision is expected before next June.