The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday affirmed a Texas university's use of race in admissions, drawing praise from civil rights groups, which heralded the decision as a major victory for affirmative action.
By a 4-3 vote, the court upheld the University of Texas at Austin's argument that it needed to consider race to ensure diversity of its student body and that it had exhausted other means of achieving that goal.
The ruling came as a surprise to some experts, who had expected the court to rule in favor of Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied admission in 2008. But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who has not supported affirmative-action cases in the past, joined with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Stephen G. Breyer to affirm the university's practice.
Had the decision gone the other way, it could have had broad implications for universities throughout the country, many of which consider race in the admissions process to ensure diversity.
"Because the court didn't rule . . . against affirmative action, I don't think it will change much about how universities go about these things now," said Michael Moreland, a Villanova University law professor who has watched the case closely.
He said the decision could "create a lot more leeway for universities to use race-conscious admissions policies. The level of scrutiny by courts is reduced by today's decision."
The ruling was widely praised by civil rights and education groups.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called it "a huge victory for civil rights and equality in our nation. The court's ruling upholds long-standing precedent and will allow continued progress in the effort to bring equal opportunity to college campuses."
President Obama also spoke in favor of the ruling.
"We are not a country that guarantees equal outcomes, but we do strive to provide an equal shot to everybody, and that's what was upheld today," he said.
Locally, college officials said they were pleased and would continue to consider race as one of many factors in building a diverse student body.
"We do believe in the value of diversity in the undergraduate admission process," said Jim Bock, dean of admissions at Swarthmore College, where more than 40 percent of its U.S. students are racial minorities. "A diverse community enriches the academic experience for all the students, so we're excited the court has affirmed that moving forward."
The Texas case was brought by Fisher, who applied for admission in 2008. She was not entitled to admission under a state law that requires the top 10 percent of the high school class to be automatically admitted. So, she competed for admission with others in a process that included race. As a consequence, Fisher contended, her constitutional and civil rights were violated.
Three years ago, the Supreme Court declined to issue a definitive ruling, instead ordering the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to reexamine the issue. It said the appellate court had failed to hold the university to sufficient scrutiny as it sought to prove that race was an essential consideration in efforts to develop a diverse student body.
Many local schools, including Haverford, Swarthmore, Bucknell, Temple, and Drexel, joined in court briefs filed in the case, arguing in favor of allowing the use of race as a criterion to enhance diversity.
The Fifth Circuit Court affirmed the Texas university's use of race, and the Supreme Court took up the case a second time.
In Thursday's ruling, the justices said the university demonstrated that it had tried race-neutral admissions policies and had attempted to increase the diversity of its student body in other ways. None had worked, Kennedy wrote, and the university had shown its admissions policies to be narrowly tailored.
"The university has thus met its burden of showing that the admissions policy it used at the time it rejected [Fisher's] application was narrowly tailored," Kennedy wrote in the opinion.
Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas, and John G. Roberts dissented. Alito decried the school's policy as "affirmative action gone wild" in a lengthy dissenting opinion. Joining Alito's dissent, Thomas wrote that he believes the Equal Protection Clause prohibits the use of race in public higher-education admissions.
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself because while she was serving as solicitor general, the Justice Department submitted a brief in the case supporting the university.
Rutgers University does not consider race as a factor in its admissions decisions. Still, university officials lauded Thursday's decision as an important defense of affirmative action.
"I'll take a victory any way I can. It's a narrow victory, but it is in support of what I think is an important ability to use race as one factor in decision-making with respect to enrollment," said Phoebe A. Haddon, chancellor of Rutgers-Camden.
Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers-Newark, hailed the decision as especially important, saying, "The fastest-growing groups of Americans are among those to whom educational opportunity remains least available."
As an administrator at the University of Michigan, Cantor had been involved in its defense of affirmative-action policies in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases, one of which was affirmed by the court and the other struck down.
On Thursday, Cantor cited Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion in Grutter: "As O'Connor wrote and the court reaffirms today, nothing less than the 'legitimacy' and 'integrity' of our educational institutions is at stake."
Liliana Garces, an associate professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University, said that giving students of all backgrounds access to "these major institutions that provide the pathway for leadership in our country" is important for the future of the nation and democracy.
"There's a large body of social-science evidence that shows that when you have a diverse student body, you help promote excellence in education for all students," said Garces, who was part of a large contingent of scholars who filed a brief in support of the university.
Randall C. Deike, who oversees admissions at Drexel, also hailed the decision and said it underscored the importance of being able to consider race as a factor in admissions. The university also considers other factors, such as test scores, grades, the rigor of the high school curriculum, and an applicant's home state.
"Our goal is to make sure our campus reflects the world in which our students are going to live and work," he said.
Though the high court's decision was tailored to the Texas university's admissions program, it was viewed as a wider endorsement of affirmative action as a means of drawing a diverse class, experts said.
"It would be a mistake to treat this as a narrow ruling confined only to the unusual Texas system," said Rodney Smolla, dean of Widener University Delaware Law School. But the decision also warned that the university has to be diligent about continuing to monitor and revise its policies.
"The university now has at its disposal valuable data about the manner in which different approaches to admissions may foster diversity or instead dilute it," the opinion reads. "The university must continue to use this data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary."
The ruling won't affect Fisher, who has already graduated from Louisiana State University.