I’d like to share with you an op-ed I wrote for today’s Wall Street Journal regarding our Supreme Court case:
Bill Powers: An Admissions Policy That Prizes Diversity
History repeats itself Wednesday in an eerie but ironic way, as the University of Texas goes before the Supreme Court to defend its consideration of race in admissions. UT last did so 62 years ago, when Heman Sweatt, an African-American postal worker from Houston, challenged the university’s consideration of race.
Sweatt, of course, had been denied admission because of his race. The university lost that case—but America won. UT became one of the first flagship universities in the former Confederacy to integrate, and Sweatt paved the way for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision integrating all of public education and forever banishing the fiction of separate but equal.
This time, UT finds itself back in court superficially for the same reason—considering race in admissions—but with just the opposite motivation. While our 1950 policy aimed to keep certain people out, our 2012 policy is aimed at permitting more of their grandchildren to enter.
The crux of this week’s case, Fisher v. The University of Texas, isn’t whether diversity is good. The vast majority of Americans now understand that diversity isn’t only acceptable but desirable in all aspects of life, especially education. In my 38 years in the classroom, I often have seen how a diverse classroom enriches discussion, provides valuable insights and offers a deeper learning experience. After all, how can a homogenous environment prepare students to be effective citizens of a diverse world?
Rather, the question at the heart of this case is whether any consideration of race, no matter how slight, is constitutional. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that the educational benefits of a diverse student body are so compelling that race can be considered as one of many factors. In the opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the constitution “does not prohibit the [University of Michigan] Law School’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” Surely nine short years have not obliterated this logic.
If the fiction dispelled by the Sweatt case was that education could be separate but equal, the fiction that will be dispelled by Fisher is that minority students are being admitted at the expense of more qualified white students. There are no unqualified students admitted to UT—to the contrary, admission is more competitive than ever.
About three-fourths of our students are automatically admitted by virtue of their high-school class rank. Even for those students we use a holistic review to determine whether they will be admitted to a particular college or school. For the rest, we employ an entirely holistic review in which race is one of many factors along with leadership, extracurricular activities, awards, work experience, family-income level and community service.
As a result, UT is fully compliant with Grutter and earlier decisions that acknowledge the importance of diversity and permit race to be one factor among many. Our policy doesn’t strive to achieve a quota or demographic target.
Diversity benefits all students, as the court rightly affirmed in Grutter, but that is only the beginning of its benefit to society. Preparing young people to lead in an increasingly global civilization also pays dividends for employers, organizations, governments, communities and everyone who is served by our graduates as they leave the academy to make a difference in the world.