Courtesy of the New Yorker

Issue 5 Correction: UCR Assistant Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost (EVCP) WIlliam Kidder did not co-author the AERA brief. Kidder is part of the writing team that drafted the brief signed by 444 American Social Scientists.

With the introduction of opening statements, the U.S. Supreme Court case in Fisher v. University of Texas (UT) conducted its first trial on Oct. 10. The inclusion of race as an admissions factor is being contested by the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, who was denied enrollment to the University of Texas at Austin back in 2008. Known as a more conservative circuit, the U.S. Justices displayed equally divided viewpoints over the structure of the university’s race-neutral admissions and whether it directly improves college diversity, in accordance to constitutional law.

Based on the university acceptance policies in compliance with state law, the top 10 percent of all high school graduates receive automatic admission into the UT of Austin. Applicants, such as Fisher, who fell below this grading bracket are considered under holistic review, which includes leadership skills, musical talent, community service, socioeconomic background and race–the factor being disputed. As a result, Fisher argues that her liberties from the Equal Rights Clause of the 14th Amendment were violated.

In the previous affirmative action case of Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the US Supreme court ruled in favor of legitimate race-conscious policies in the admissions process. As a result, the court argued that the university should have a greater degree of autonomy in determining whether race should be considered. “Grutter invokes a broad ‘tradition of giving a degree of deference to a university’s academic decisions and recognizes that courts should respect the ‘educational autonomy’ of universities given their unique role in our society,” states an opposing brief against Fisher.

Among the areas of debate, the justices touched upon the legitimacy to which the selection of race on an application accurately portrays campus diversity. Fisher’s defense team has yet to prove that race was the deciding factor which denied her acceptance into UT of Austin. The distinction between state enrollment and admissions policies has unearthed the argument over whether heightened levels of diversity has been fulfilled through affirmative action policies.

In early September, the UC Board of Regents, along with 70 other California institutions, filed briefs that advocated the inclusion of affirmative action in advancing a diverse learning environment. Notably, UCR Assistant Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost (EVCP) WIlliam Kidder co-authored a brief filed by the American Education Research Association (AERA), which compiled signatures from over 400 U.S. social scientists. Since California voters effectively banned affirmative action in 1996 through Proposition 206, studies have shown diminishing enrollment rates for African Americans and Latinos, especially at more selective universities.

As the current foundation for affirmative action in Texas, the Grutter case invoked the application of university admissions in accordance to state law. While in the Fisher case, Kidder argues that “The 10 percent plan covers about 75 or 80 percent of their admissions decisions and it’s actually the other 20 or so that’s really subjected to this [race-neutral admissions] law,” studies have shown that the inclusion of affirmative action as an admissions factor has attributed to a more diverse campus climate. According to the 2010-2011 Impact Report at the UT of Austin, the 20 year study from 1990 to 2010 reveals an 63 percent enrollment increase of Hispanic students, a 26 percent increase in African-American students and a 150 percent increase in Asian-Americans.

Emerging studies through the field of social science have proven that the culmination of diverse classes tends to create a more accepting campus climate, while increasing self-awareness and acceptance among underrepresented minority groups. They claim increased diversity in an academic environment leads to greater interaction with an array of ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds.

In an interview with the Highlander, Vice Provost Kidder spoke of his involvement in co-authoring multiple briefs, which has also been used as points of references in the Fisher case. “UCR has what’s called a higher ‘critical mass,’ which means we have a much more sizable population from different racial and ethnic groups.” In comparison to other UC schools, his studies demonstrated that more underrepresented demographics among African Americans and Latino felt respected at UCR. Kidder also perceived the case in terms of expanding opportunity and fair accessibility to students, yet expressed that more needs to be done to ensure campus diversity.

“Student body diversity is not just about helping certain students get it, it is about leveraging admissions decisions for the benefit of everyone in the learning environment,” states Kidder, who examined the social science studies of the levels of diversity needed to justify some degree of consideration.

Alternative policy options include an income-based integration, rather than giving “weight” to certain races of socioeconomic background, to determine the overall competitive and need-basis. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said affirmative action would not matter after 25 years, yet this topic has been brought up again a decade later. Since Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case, a split decision makes for a possible outcome. With Chief Justice Anthony Kennedy appearing to be the “swing vote,” the case has a high chance of ending in a split 4-4 or tilting 5-3 and in favor of UT Austin. Either of these results will uphold the rulings made by the lower courts, which supports the current admissions policies at the University of Texas.