The U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue a definitive ruling Monday on the use of race in college admissions, instead ordering a lower court to re-examine the issue.
The high court voted, 7-1, to send a University of Texas case - in which a white student denied admission challenged the university's use of race - back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. It said the appellate court had failed to hold the university to sufficient scrutiny as it sought to prove race was an essential consideration in efforts to develop a diverse student body. The 13-page opinion was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
Around the Philadelphia region and across the nation, colleges and universities have had their eye on the case, figuring it could have a sweeping impact on the admissions process. Many local schools, including Haverford, Swarthmore, Bucknell, Temple, and Drexel, were part of court briefs filed in the case, arguing in favor of allowing continued use of race as a criterion to enhance diversity.
But it appears that the Monday decision will have little immediate impact at Texas or on any other campus, given that the case has been sent back for further review.
"Given all the possibilities, it was a bit anticlimactic," said William T. Conley, vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. Instead, it looks like "some more waiting and watching."
"I don't see it having any short-term effect on what we're doing," agreed Jess Lord, Haverford College's dean of admission and financial aid.
But the decision suggests that colleges could see more challenges on use of race. Two justices, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, said they would overrule a previous case, Grutter v. Bollinger, that affirmed a narrowly defined use of race in admissions.
"A state's use of race in higher education admissions decisions is categorically prohibited by the Equal Protection Clause," Thomas wrote in a concurring opinion.
At the very least, the court indicated that colleges must prove they must use race to achieve diversity rather than other race-neutral methods.
"Longer term, the court has made it clear that it will very carefully examine whether an institution truly needs to use race in its admissions decisions and what other race-neutral alternatives the institution has reviewed to see whether they would actually suffice," said Ada Meloy, general counsel to the American Council on Education, a national higher education umbrella group.
While the decision brings no immediate upheaval, it should not result in the status quo, she said.
"Colleges and universities need to be examining what they do in light of this decision and in general," Meloy said.
The decision, Lord said, could touch off a rash of lawsuits challenging universities' use of race in admissions decisions.
"This is a divisive issue," he said. "There are strong feelings about it on either side."
He said he was heartened to see that the court supported the need for diversity, though questioning the method.
Lord said it was difficult to quantify the role that race plays in admissions at Haverford.
"Academics are what we care about most," he said. "But we're seeking to be a dynamic educational community. We definitely see diversity as part of that."
The college's incoming freshman class is 8 percent African American, 12.5 percent Latino, and 15 percent Asian, he said.
At Bucknell, race is not part of the initial process, but is one of a multitude of factors considered later, Conley said.
"Bucknell's selection process, first, focuses on overall academic and personal accomplishments," he added in a statement. "Then at the second and tertiary levels of building a freshmen class, diversity (intended major, race, ethnicity, geography, first-generation, etc.) enters the process in a narrowly tailored manner."
Other area colleges, including Rutgers in New Jersey and Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., said they would continue their current practices until the case is sorted out.
At Rutgers, race and ethnicity are used only if a multitude of other "race-neutral" factors "do not yield a critical mass of under-represented minority students," the school said.
The Texas case originally was brought by Abigail Fisher, who applied for admission in 2008 and was denied. Fisher was not entitled to admission under a state law that requires the top 10 percent of the high school class to be automatically admitted. She competed for admission with others in a process that included race. She claimed that her constitutional and civil rights had been violated.
University of Texas president Bill Powers said Monday that the court's decision would have no impact on admissions decisions already made or on the school's policies.
"We remain committed to assembling a student body at the University of Texas at Austin that provides the educational benefits of diversity on campus while respecting the rights of all students and acting within the constitutional framework established by the court," he said.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lone dissenter in the high court's decision, sided with the university, writing that its use of race was one factor in admissions and that she agreed it was needed to achieve a diverse student body.