Weighing whether the University of Texas may continue considering race for undergraduate admissions, a federal appeals court panel Wednesday pressed school lawyers to explain why a diverse student body could not be achieved via race-neutral criteria.
UT lawyer Gregory Garre said the school spent seven years without considering race, and by 2004 its African American enrollment had fallen by almost half, while Hispanic enrollment was stagnant at best. Recognizing that diversity helps all students prepare for life in the work force, UT began applying a limited consideration of race in its admissions process, he said.
“The University of Texas concluded … that it was not achieving its educational objectives and additional measures were warranted,” Garre said during oral arguments in the Austin courtroom of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The lawyer for Abigail Fisher, a white woman who sued in 2008 after being denied admission to UT, argued that the school improperly injected race into its admissions process.
“You don’t tailor a means of solving a problem by throwing race into … the admissions system,” lawyer Bert Rein told the three-judge panel.
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, Rein said, UT must prove that its race-based standards are necessary and are narrowly drawn to achieve a specific goal. But UT’s policy, begun in 2005, had a minimal impact on student diversity, suggesting alternate methods could have achieved the same goal, he said.
“Race changes the equation,” Rein said. “If you are going to use race as a tool, as a visible tool … then you have certain obligations that the U.S. Supreme Court imposed.”
UT’s admissions policy had already been found constitutional by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, returned the case last June, directing the intermediate court to examine the policy under a different standard to determine if it is “narrowly tailored to obtain the educational benefits of diversity.”
Under state law that was last changed in 2009, high school graduates gain automatic admission to UT if their grade point average ranks in the top 7 percent of their school.
In recent years, those students have accounted for 67 percent to 77 percent of UT’s freshman class. The rest of the applicants undergo a review that includes race as a factor.
Specifically, race is one of seven “special circumstances” that make up one of six factors constituting a “personal achievement score.” That score, in turn, is one of three factors, along with two personal essays, that generate a “personal achievement index.” That index and an “academic index” based on test scores and class rank are plotted on a matrix, with each cell on the matrix containing all applicants with the same combination of scores.
All applicants within a cell are admitted or rejected based on the capacity of the major or college for which they had applied.
UT calls it a holistic admissions plan designed to foster a diverse student population. Fisher calls it a gratuitous use of racial preferences and is asking the court to strike down the practice.
After oral arguments, UT President Bill Powers said the university has not wavered in its commitment to defend the admissions policy.
“To suggest we have not tried race-neutral admissions policies ignores the university’s history,” Powers said. Minority enrollment fell despite targeted recruiting, increased scholarships and other programs, he said.
Fisher, who has since received a bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University, said she also remained committed to pursuing a case that had begun in 2008.
“I’m going to fight for other people’s rights,” she said.
The appeals court panel — Judges Carolyn Dineen King, Patrick Higginbotham and Emilio Garza — has no deadline to issue its opinion.