SALT LAKE CITY — The controversial issue of affirmative action will be decided this month by the Supreme Court and will set a precedent in how colleges and universities accept students. It is not expected to have significant impact on the current admissions policies of Utah's colleges and universities, however.
The case, Fisher v. University of Texas, which has been on a legal track toward the top court since 2008, centers on a woman who claims she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin despite being equally or more qualified than minority students who were admitted under the university’s policy of considering family circumstance and race in its application process.
University officials claim Abigail Fisher, a white student from the Houston area with a 3.59 grade-point average, the plaintiff in the case, was not qualified to attend the school and said her race was not the reason she was not accepted into the school. Officials at the school also argued that schools have the right to assemble a diverse student body, a position upheld by the court in a 2003 case (Grutter v. Bollinger) focused on affirmative action admissions decisions at the University of Michigan.
Prior to reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, a district court in 2009 ruled in favor of the University of Texas at Austin. The case was then appealed to a three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which also ruled in favor of the university.
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from hearing the case. Five of the remaining eight judges would need to rule against the university's policy, as a tie would uphold the lower courts’ decisions. A decision is expected by the end of June, possibly as early as Monday.
A ruling in favor of Fisher would give legal precedent to individuals challenging affirmative action admission policies, which are sometimes cited as perpetuating racial divisions, and the dispute has been among the key cases the court is ruling on this month.
Pamela Silberman, spokeswoman for the Utah System of Higher Education, said the court’s decision, while impactful nationally and precedent-setting, will have little immediate impact either way on Utah’s public colleges and universities. It could certainly impact Utah students seeking education out of state, particularly in hard-to-get-into programs making use of affirmative action policies.
Of the eight schools in the Utah public system, five are open enrollment, meaning all applicants are accepted based on a basic entrance requirement. The remaining three schools — the University of Utah, Utah State University and Southern Utah University — determine enrollment by a minimum index score combining high school grade-point averages and ACT or SAT exam scores.
“There’s really not any sort of consideration of race or ethnicity or other demographic standards there,” Silberman said. “It’s going to have almost no impact in the state of Utah because there hasn’t been a strong history of those kinds of policies anyway.”
Because Utah’s schools determine admission based on academic criteria, it is not likely that a decision against the University of Texas would lead to Utah students challenging their denied admission applications, she said.
“I think that if the criteria for entrance are really clear, then you’re going to avoid that,” Silberman said. “We want all students to be prepared so they can meet those criteria, and I think that’s the focus we have.”
The U. recently transitioned to a holistic application process, which considers extracurricular factors like creative endeavors and community service in addition to GPA and test scores.
Octavio Villalpando, associate vice president for equity and diversity at the U., said the policy is still being fine-tuned, but because it does not give special consideration to race or demographics, he does not foresee it running into conflict with the court's decision on Fisher.
Villalpando said U. officials have studied the effects of anti-affirmative action laws in other states to avoid conflict.
"We don't anticipate any significant changes here at the campus," he said. "Looking across the country in states where a version of this law passed, the flagship campuses didn’t have to change much of their admissions process."
Of the 33,291 students enrolled at the University of Utah in the fall of 2012, about 70 percent were white, 7 percent were Hispanic and 4 percent were Asian, according to data from the Utah System of Higher Education. Statewide, 14 percent of public college and university students in Utah were minority students in 2012.
Villalpando said the University of Utah, as well as other institutions in the Utah System of Higher Education, have focused on collaborating with K-12 education to prepare students for college, rather than implementing admissions policies to address perceived racial imbalances.
He also said the relatively recent diversification of Utah's student body has allowed educators to observe the best practices of areas in the country with larger minority populations.
"I think the fact that Utah is just now beginning to see this large demographic change is really helping higher ed in many ways," Villalpando said. "It’s allowing us to learn from other strategies states have adopted."
But the controversy surrounding affirmative action is not unknown to the state. In 2010, Utah lawmakers considered a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment prohibiting affirmative action in state agencies and higher education.
The pre-emptive resolution, sponsored by Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfied, stated that public entities could not “grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.”
The resolution received a favorable recommendation during its House committee hearing but was moved by the House Rules Committee, where it languished until the session expired without coming up for a vote.
David Jones, education division chief for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said affirmative action is not a pervasive issue in Utah's courts. Historically, the number of cases on the issue has been minimal, Jones said, and he does not expect the Supreme Court's decision on Fisher v. University of Texas to change that.
He also agreed with Silberman and Villalpando's assessment that the index score admission process of Utah's schools would be largely unaffected by the outcome of the case.
"The ACT scores and the grade-point averages aren't going to be affected by the Supreme Court decision," Jones said.