On Friday the Obama administration issued a policy clarification to colleges and universities on how they legally can racially diversify their campuses without discriminating against potential students.
In a letter from the Departments of Education and Justice, the administration reaffirmed its stance that “racially diverse education environments help to prepare students to succeed in our increasingly diverse nation” and that a racially and ethnically diverse study body “promotes cross-racial understanding and classroom dialogue, reduces racial isolation, and helps to break down stereotypes.”
Largely silent since a June 24 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Friday’s policy clarification was the first time the Obama administration publicly encouraged colleges and universities to continue to increase diversity among students through the admissions process.
The June ruling from the Supreme Court related to an affirmative action case — Fisher v. University of Texas — in which applicant Abigail Fisher claimed she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin because the school had an affirmative action admissions policy in place. Fisher said that in the name of diversity, the school chose to admit a minority applicant instead of her because she was White.
However, in a 7-1 ruling, the Supreme Court sent the case back to a lower court for further review and said that schools could include race as a factor when deciding whether or not to admit a student, so long as they follow the strict federal guidelines for doing so, since there is no other “race-neutral alternatives” that would allow a school to diversify its student body population.
In Fisher’s case, many pointed to Grutter v. Bollinger, which involved a legal challenge by a White student to the University of Michigan’s undergraduate affirmative action program. Barbara Grutter, a White student said she was rejected from the University of Michigan Law School because she was White.
Grutter said the school intentionally discriminated against Whites and said the school’s policies were in direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants equal protection under the law to all persons, no matter their race.
In this 2003 case, the Supreme Court ruled that while use of affirmative action in school admission is constitutional if race is one of many factors considered, but is unconstitutional if a person’s race is the sole reason a person is admitted to a school over another applicant.
According to a July 2013 Gallup poll, about 67 percent of Americans believe that colleges should admit students solely based on merit, even if that results in very few minority students being admitted to college, while 28 percent say that racial and ethnic background should be taken into consideration.
Of those who believe colleges should only look at an applicant’s merit, about 75 percent were White and 59 percent were Hispanic. Black respondents were divided almost equally on whether or not a college should consider a person’s race.
Dennis Parker is the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program. He said what the court’s ruling in Fisher’s case meant was that colleges and universities have to “carefully put these plans [for diversity] into effect and the court is going to look at the individual plans in a really rigorous way.
“Certainly the court did not say schools couldn’t try for diversity. It didn’t say you could never take race into consideration … So the government’s suggestion that schools continue to implement these programs if they’ve taken the right steps, that makes sense.”
Due to differing circumstances, Parker said the legality of a school’s diversity admissions plan will likely be examined on a case-by-case basis. “You have to look at the details of the plan, you have to look at whether or not the university tried other methods before it started taking race exclusively into account,” he said.
Jocelyn Samuels is the Justice Department’s acting assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division. She said the administration released the clarification because they wanted to be sure that colleges and universities implemented affirmative action admission policies “in carefully structured ways that would avoid legal challenge.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the Supreme Court ruling in June and on Friday said that a diverse enrollment “promotes cross-racial understanding and dialogue, reduces racial isolation and helps to break down stereotypes.”