Office of Planning and Budgeting

Education and Justice Departments Clarify Fisher v. UT Ruling

On Friday, the Obama administration gave some clarity to the Supreme Court ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, as the decision had not provided a direct answer about the constitutionality of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education. Instead, the ruling had underscored the necessity of “strict scrutiny”—a term that sparked concern and confusion among some college officials. In a “Dear Colleague” letter, the Education and Justice Departments clarified:

An individual student’s race can be considered as one of several factors in higher education admissions as long as the admissions program meets the well-established ‘strict scrutiny’ standard; specifically, the college or university must demonstrate that considering the race of individual applicants in its admissions program is narrowly tailored to meet the compelling interest in diversity, including that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice.

In other words, colleges can continue considering race in admissions decisions as long as race-neutral alternatives would not achieve “sufficient diversity,” as Justice Kennedy put it in the case’s majority decision. Determining what constitutes “sufficient” diversity is where much of the remaining ambiguity lies.  However, in their letter, the Departments pledged to provide “technical assistance” to institutions as they interpret the ruling and asserted that previously-provided guidance on affirmative action still holds true.

As Inside Higher Ed reported, legal experts believe the court’s “strict scrutiny” requirement will make it difficult for UT and many other institutions to successfully defend their use of race in admissions. However, the Obama administration seemed to encourage colleges to maintain their diversity efforts. “The Departments of Education and Justice stand ready to support colleges and universities in pursuing a racially and ethnically diverse student body in a lawful manner,” the letter stated.

For more information, see the Departments’ Q&A document and the article by Inside Higher Ed, and stay tuned to our blog for updates.

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