Although the upcoming Supreme Court case on the University of Texas’ race-conscious admissions policy will be largely irrelevant in the Golden State, the University of California and others have filed briefs to emphasize that if the nation goes the way of California, then diversity – and the educational benefits that come with it – will suffer.
The UC president and chancellors, the state of California, the California Institute of Technology and a group of student organizations at UC campuses are among at least 69 organizations that have filed amicus – or friend of the court – briefs in support of the University of Texas at Austin.
At least 15 groups filed amicus briefs in support of Abigail Fisher, who filed the original lawsuit against University of Texas after she was denied undergraduate admission in 2008.
The University of Texas admits the bulk of its undergraduates through a state law that guarantees the top 10 percent of graduates at each Texas high school a spot in a state university. In 2008, when Fisher applied, 81 percent of in-state students enrolled were admitted under the 10 percent law. Fisher did not make that cut.
The university admits the remaining students through a review process that considers race as one of several factors that contribute to a student’s personal achievement score. Fisher was denied admission under that review.
Fisher’s brief [PDF] argues that this use of race in admissions decisions is unconstitutional because it does not further a compelling government interest and is not narrowly tailored. District and appeals courts sided with the university, but the Supreme Court will hear the appeal in October.
While the case stands to have great impact nationally, California is one of a few states that already has prohibited affirmative action in college admissions. Voters approved Proposition 209 in 1996.
In its brief [PDF], UC attorneys argued that the university system’s experience after Prop. 209 “sheds important light on the practical, real-world obstacles faced by universities seeking to obtain the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.”
Despite several initiatives enacted after the proposition passed, UC has not been able to reverse the decline in minority admission and enrollment since 1998, when the law went into effect.
The shortfall is most apparent, the UC lawyers said, when you look at admission rates for African American students at UC Berkeley and UCLA. Between 1995 and 2009, African Americans consistently represented between 7 and 8 percent of new high school graduates in California.
In 1995, African Americans made up 7.3 percent of admitted freshmen at UC Berkeley, but by 1998, that figure had dropped to 3.2 percent. In 2010 and 2011, it was 3.9 percent. UCLA saw similar results.
The UC brief also noted the connection between having a “critical mass” of underrepresented minority students and whether a campus has a healthy racial climate.
UC campuses conduct a biennial study in which undergraduates are asked, among other things, whether they feel that students of their race or ethnicity are respected on campus. The brief called the fall 2010 results “striking” – ranging from 12.9 percent of African American students at UC Riverside who said they did not feel respected to 68.5 percent of African American students at UC San Diego who said as much.
In fall 2010, UC Riverside had the highest percentage of African American students in the system, at 7.8 percent, and UC San Diego had the lowest, at 1.8 percent, according to UC data [PDF].
The brief [PDF] filed on behalf of the state of California by Attorney General Kamala Harris observed that if California, a large and diverse state, could not achieve an acceptable level of diversity in its public universities in the absence of race-conscious admissions policies, other states with more homogeneous populations would struggle more.
Caltech’s brief [PDF], which was filed in conjunction with nine other universities, noted that a 10 percent law or other numeric approach to diversity would not be feasible for smaller national schools.
Also filing a brief on behalf of the university was the American Educational Research Association, a national research society that joined seven other scientific societies in its brief.
The scientists said that in the years since the last landmark 2003 Supreme Court case on affirmative action, Grutter v. Bollinger, research studies have reinforced prior findings and expanded the scientific understanding of diversity’s benefits.
A number of studies document that students with exposure to individuals different from themselves – as well as the new ideas and situations that this exposure brings – creates cognitive growth, the brief said.
The association posted links to the research cited in its brief on its website.
"We see ourselves as taking a strong position on the responsibility – along with our cosigners – of bringing science to the court," said Felice J. Levine, executive director of the association.
The attorney for the scientific organizations also wrote that the groups were particularly concerned about the Fisher brief’s use of what they considered flawed research and misapplied findings.
Part of the argument in Fisher’s brief says the costs of using race in admissions include placing an “unwarranted badge of inferiority” on Hispanic and African American applicants who are admitted to the University of Texas based on merit and achievement.
The brief from the scientific societies, however, claims that these arguments have the support of few researchers.
“The bulk of the scant research supporting these claims has been published without peer review, has been widely criticized by peer scientists, and has been contradicted by better-designed and more recent research,” the brief reads.
And one study indicates that feelings of inferiority were lower among minority students in schools with race-conscious admissions than they were in schools that bar affirmative action.
"I’m so proud of what the scientific community has undertaken in the last decade that enables research arenas to be able to offer public policy decision-makers in the court with such high-quality knowledge," Levine said.