Key affirmative action case ready for resolution

Published: Sunday, June 9 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

The case of 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.

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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.

Utah's standards

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.

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