06/23/2016

AFT celebrates court decision on affirmative action

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In a victory for advocates of racial equity and expanded opportunity in higher education, the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the University of Texas' consideration of race and ethnicity in the college admissions process. The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, is considered a bellwether of the future of affirmative action and is expected to affect colleges and universities across the nation.

"The AFT, as the nation's largest union of faculty and a longstanding champion of racial equity, joins with our allies in celebrating the Supreme Court's decision to affirm what we already know—that affirmative action is one tool among many to level the opportunity playing field and to combat racial segregation and inequity," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "Students—regardless of race or ethnicity—deserve access to a quality higher education. And our colleges and universities are strengthened through diverse student bodies, which provide richer learning environments for all students."

The Texas decision was a long time coming: The case was first filed in 2008, when the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, was a senior in high school and appealed from a decision (in favor of the university) from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 2014. The Supreme Court heard arguments last December, while crowds of affirmative action advocates—including AFT leaders—rallied in front of the court building. The AFT also filed an amicus brief at that time.

While the recent decision has sweeping effects on admissions processes, the details of the case are worth noting. It began when Fisher, a white woman, was rejected for admission to the University of Texas at Austin and sued the college for rejecting her based on race. Fisher's lawyers argue that UT could use other methods to ensure its student body is diverse—namely "the 10 percent plan." This statewide policy ensures admission to state colleges for the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class. Because many schools are majority black, top black students are guaranteed admission.

But the university argued that it cannot diversify its student body with the 10 percent plan alone. In addition, the key to the program's success is also antithetical to diversification: It relies on the perpetuation of segregated secondary schools.

The case was also influenced by personalities on the Supreme Court. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because she worked on the case as solicitor general before she became a member of the Supreme Court. Justice Antonin Scalia was strongly opposed to the consideration of race in college admissions and caused an uproar during arguments in December when he implied that schools like the University of Texas are "too fast" for black people, who might be more comfortable at "slower track" schools. Then Scalia died in February, leaving just seven justices to decide the case.

The vote was 4-3, with Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor voting in favor of the University of Texas and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito Jr. dissenting.

"A case like this highlights not only the importance of having Supreme Court justices who value fairness and diversity, but also the stakes of the 2016 election," says Weingarten.

[Virginia Myers, AFT press release]