One Door Opening Shouldn’t Close Another

Affirmative action is in the news again pending the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on Fisher v. University of Texas, which is expected between now and late June.

The case involves two white plaintiffs, Abigail Noel Fisher and Rachel Multer Michalewicz, who applied to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 and were denied admission. The women filed suit alleging the university had discriminated against them because of their race.

According to David Leonhardt’s March 9 New York Times piece “The Liberals Against Affirmative Action,” the last time the court ruled on the subject in 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger may provide clues to affirmative action’s future. Back then, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy agreed that universities could include race as one modest factor in their admissions decisions.

But now race seems to be playing a more prominent role than any of the other dimensions of diversity that colleges say they want, including socio-economic status. “As a result, elite public and private colleges remain dominated by affluent students,” Leonhardt wrote.

“… Kennedy dissent leaves the door open to affirmative action, but only a form that makes the explicit consideration of race a last resort.”

There are other factors besides race that could be used to facilitate minority inclusion in the college admissions process. Leonhardt says the most obvious of these is income, and he mentions a few other approaches colleges can take to show they’ve tried other kinds of affirmative action besides race.

It’s a tough issue though — a complex one that does not have an easy solution. There are so many angles to consider I barely have an opinion beyond that we still need affirmative action, and it appears to need tweaking if cases like Fisher v. University of Texas are happening.

I don’t believe Fisher was an isolated incident. There are probably many cases where deserving white students were denied entry into colleges to make room for minority students. That flies against the very ideals upon which affirmative action was built. It was intended to open doors to education, not to close them. It was intended to level the playing field, not to make unfair judgments about who should or should not have access to advanced schooling.

Change is coming. Just on Monday the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in Michigan about a law that bans affirmative action in public college admissions. It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court ultimately has to say about Fisher and the Michigan law. Stay tuned.