Doctoral Students Brief Supreme CourtBy Jill Anderson
Doctoral candidates Phil Lee, J.D.’00, Ed.M.’12, and Matthew Shaw filed an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief supporting the University of Texas at Austin (UT) in Fisher v. University of Texas, a United States Supreme Court case regarding UT’s race-conscious admissions policies.
In 2008, applicant Abigail Fisher was unsuccessful in her application to UT, and asked the courts to review the university’s admission policy. Fisher challenges the holding in the 2003 case, Grutter v. Bollinger, that the educational benefits of diversity in higher education serve a compelling governmental interest.
“There is so much at stake in this case that it moved us to action,” Lee says. “If the Supreme Court overrules prior precedent approving of race-conscious admissions in higher education, then we will see minority enrollment reduced to a trickle and to us that is a devastating result.”
In the brief, filed on behalf of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) Students for Diversity, Shaw and Lee argue that UT’s policies are not like the exclusionary policies of the 1920s, but more like the inclusionary policies of the 1960s that developed in response to the civil rights and students’ rights movements.
Their brief explores the development of admission models, particularly how the current race-conscious admissions model at UT differs from the anti-Jewish exclusionary model created in the 1920s at elite colleges and the anti-African American admissions practices of the early- to mid-20th century. Lee and Shaw contend that the admissions policies developed in the 1960s were implemented to actually include members of historically excluded groups. UT’s current policy mirrors these inclusive practices.
Shaw points out that in many situations inclusive admissions policies benefit white applicants as well as applicants of color. “The main question for the admissions office is what does the applicant bring to the University of Texas that will enrich backgrounds and perspectives for the entire class. Those are individualized, holistic, context-rich decisions that look at the whole applicant and her entire application,” he says.
After serving last spring as panelists for a HGSE Diversity Dialogue, a forum where students come together to discuss issues related to diversity and education, the two lawyers joined together to write the brief this summer. Lee’s advisor, Professor Julie Reuben, was instrumental in helping Lee and Shaw shape early drafts. The lawyer-doctoral students also received support from Dean Kathleen McCartney, Academic Dean Hiro Yoshikawa, and Shaw’s advisor, Associate Professor John Diamond, as well as the Office of Student Affairs.
“This is one of many things we are doing as part of moving this conversation forward,” Shaw says. “One of the things we are passionate about is increasing the opportunity to discuss law and education. A lot of people do not understand how much law impacts education. We hope to change that.”
Lee agrees. “This place [HGSE] is a synergy of resources with wonderful people supporting us and helping us to reach not only our potentials, but helping us to help others do the same,” Lee says. “We felt compelled to act because we consider ourselves to be equity warriors who believe deeply in educational access for all.”