Dave Wilson

Affirmative Action Continues Under Scrutiny

Interpreting Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin

After Abigail Fisher was denied acceptance to the University of Texas at Austin, she sued, leading the nation to debate the merits of affirmative action and forcing the Supreme Court to make a stand on the issue. In a nutshell, Fisher argues that because she is white, the University’s policy of affirmative action discriminated against her. Rather than deciding on the case, the Supreme Court ruled that lower courts that had previously ruled on Fisher’s case needed to reevaluate their rulings. This modest decision was, for the most part, unexpected and allowed both proponents and opponents to claim victory. While celebration ensued for both sides, overall, this ruling merely continued the practice of affirmative action after it was implemented 53 years ago.

In 1961, the goal of affirmative action was to reverse blatant discrimination against African-Americans in the workforce. As affirmative action has evolved over time, it has been used to protect all minorities and is now implemented in college and graduate admissions. In theory the idea to create a diverse school or work environment without prejudice is laudable, but in practice, there are many critiques of the program. Opponents believe that by giving a boost to minority applicants in the college admissions process, these students are harmed rather than helped because they are not adequately prepared for the academics. In this process, called “mismatch,” students suffer setbacks in the classroom and may have difficulties graduating. In addition, some believe that affirmative action allows unqualified minorities to reach positions that should be given to more qualified applicants.  Proponents of affirmative action, however, contend that many minority applicants come from low-income backgrounds and that giving them a boost helps to level the playing field. Additionally, many supporters argue that at this point in time, diversity can only be created artificially with race-conscious admission practices. Without these practices, homogeneity would flourish and expand the gap between whites and minorities.

This debate regarding the benefits and shortfalls of affirmative action was particularly heated in 2002 and 2003 when the Supreme Court decided two cases, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, regarding race-conscious admission practices at the University of Michigan. Similar to Fisher, both Gratz and Grutter were white applicants who were not accepted to the university. In Gratz vs. Bollinger, the court found that Michigan’s undergraduate program used a point system, which could put minimally qualified applicants ahead of those more qualified simply because of race, and thus Gratz was not given an equal opportunity in the admissions process. On the other hand, Grutter was given a fair chance of admission to the university’s Law School because each applicant was looked at on a case-by-case basis and being part of a minority did not automatically put someone well ahead of their peers. In both cases, the justices used the logic that affirmative action is constitutional so long as it is narrowly tailored to provide diversity without harming nonminority applicants.

In this way, Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin is merely a continuation of this logic. The Supreme Court ruled that the lower courts need to put the university’s admission practices under stricter scrutiny. If the University of Texas at Austin survives this analysis of its admission process then it will be allowed to continue using race-conscious admissions. For Lee Bollinger, defendant in Gratz vs. Bollinger and Grutter vs. Bollinger and current president of Columbia University, this decision is a victory for affirmative action as it upholds Grutter. Fisher, however, stated that she is “grateful to the justices for moving the nation closer to the day when a student’s race isn’t used at all in college admissions.” Rather than making a sweeping change to the way affirmative action is currently used in admission policies, the Supreme Court continued to allow affirmative action to survive under controlled standards. Consequently, the Supreme Court has left the fate of affirmative action up to time. After Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin, it is not immediately apparent as to whether affirmative action will continue to be an integral part of admissions for only a few more years or for a few dozen. Either way, affirmative action will continue to be, without a doubt, one of the most debated issues nationwide as more cases are brought to the courts and to the public’s attention.