Supreme Court ruling says universities can practice affirmative action in admissions

May 15, 2009

University officials are eager to consider race in admissions
By Patrick McGee
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Monday’s Supreme Court decision takes a restriction off Texas universities — but will eventually lead to more lawsuits, experts say.

Texas higher education officials said Monday’s Supreme Court decision dealt a fatal blow to a ban on considering race in admissions that has been in effect for seven years.

Leaders of selective public and private universities across the state said they plan to consider race as a factor in admission as soon as possible — something they haven’t been allowed to do since the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals banned race as an admission criterion in the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas case.

Selective universities are those with high admissions standards.

“Hopwood is dead,” said Doug Laycock, a constitutional law expert at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. “We can consider race as part of an individualized review of the whole file, and that makes a huge difference.”

Higher-education officials in Texas have complained that the Hopwood decision put them at a disadvantage next to nearly every other university in the nation because the others could consider race.

Many officials also have said they want affirmative action restored because they believe diverse student bodies enhance the educational experience.

Texas A&M University President Robert Gates released a guarded statement saying only that he will wait to see what the Texas attorney general says about the ruling. But leaders at the University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University in Dallas and Rice University in Houston, all selective schools, said they will embrace the chance to consider race again.

“Rice, and the state of Texas, have experienced a significant brain drain of highly qualified minority students taken by universities able to take race into consideration,” Rice University president Malcolm Gillis said. “We particularly welcome the return to a level playing field this decision appears to provide.”

Rice and SMU officials have interpreted the court-ordered ban on considering race as applying to their universities even though they are private. Officials of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth said they do not believe Hopwood applied to their university.

State schools with less-competitive admissions standards, such as University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas, have said the court’s decision will not affect them because they’ve been successful in enrolling minorities in other ways, such as through outreach.

The decision is particularly important for UT-Austin because its law school was at the center of the Hopwood case. Cheryl Hopwood and three other Anglo applicants sued the university after they were denied admission in 1992.

UT President Larry Faulkner said he wants to reinstate affirmative action especially in the graduate and professional schools, where minority enrollment lags even more than at undergraduate levels.

“We’re very pleased at the University of Texas at Austin,” Faulkner said at a press conference. “We believe that we are released from the strictures we were previously under.”

One of the state’s main post-Hopwood approaches to enrolling minorities was a guarantee of admission to any Texas public university for all applicants who graduate in the top 10 percent of any high school in Texas.

Faulkner said he does not want to do away with outreach, the 10 percent rule and other methods developed since Hopwood to enroll minorities.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision does not mention financial aid or scholarships, Faulkner said he believes the decision means minority applicants’ race or ethnicity can again be a factor in financial aid or scholarships.

Wesley Cochran, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law in Lubbock, said some aspects of the decision are vague. For example, it says the University of Michigan gave minorities too many points for their race, but it does not say how many is too much.

He said the court frequently writes vague rulings so state lawmakers will have leeway in making the appropriate policy for local conditions.

Robert Gray, a professor at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law, said that despite the ruling’s attempt to put some issues to rest, some universities will end up in court again.

“There will be other lawsuits … People are going to believe that they were knocked out of a place because of prejudice or unconstitutional reasons,” he said. “So schools that adopt this or try to adopt it are going to have to try to be brave.”