Too Much Diversity?By Sylvia Hurtado, Ed.M.'83
On October 10th, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case contesting the use of race in college admissions brought by petitioner, Abigail Noel Fisher, against The University of Texas at Austin. This is the third time that affirmative action has been brought before the Court. The Court previously reviewed affirmative action in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) and Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) together with Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). Having been involved in the legal defense team that provided social science evidence in Gratz and Grutterat University of Michigan, I read the court transcripts for the Fisher case with great interest. The lawyers from both sides claim that they are not challenging diversity as a compelling interest. Nor do they challenge the educational benefits of diversity in college, a fact consistently established by evidence gained through social science research (see, for example, the 2002 article I coauthored with Patricia Gurin, Eric Dey, and Gerald Gurin in 2002, “Diversity and Higher Education: Theory and Impact on Educational Outcomes,” published in the Harvard Educational Review). It was surprising that the petitioner’s lawyers did not claim to overrule Grutter (the Michigan graduate case where admissions involved a whole student review of individual applications). Justice Sotomayor proved she was aware of their intentions, however, when she said to Fisher’s counsel, “So you don’t want to overrule Grutter, you just want to gut it.” That is, the intent was to “narrow the window” in which race can be used in admissions so much as to render the two previous decisions in Bakke and Grutter meaningless.
The University of Texas uses the race-neutral 10 percent plan for 75 percent of those they admit. Then, to achieve more diversity, the university uses a process similar to what is used at many selective colleges—individualized review for the remainder of students (who are evaluated on both academic and personal characteristics). That is, the majority of students are admitted if they rank in the top 10% of any high school in the state (with ranking determined by student grade point averages). While this policy increases representation of every state high school, there are many other details about a student’s background that are relevant to the university’s goals in identifying talent and leadership for a diverse state. These qualities can be recognized through a holistic admissions review. In most selective admissions processes, readers use holistic review of a file to attempt to understand the factors that make achievements more extraordinary. This helps them to identify students that demonstrate extraordinary leadership, talent in music, commitments to public service, and what UC Berkeley has called “pluck” or determination to overcome obstacles in order to succeed. Race is not a predominant factor in holistic selection in determining contributions to a campus and to the public good, but it does affect one’s circumstances, perspective, and commitments. It is hard to imagine a more constrained approach that will also achieve the educational benefits of diversity. A race-neutral procedure alone does not go far enough in achieving diversity, as shown by the low levels of diversity at The University of Texas prior to 2004 and at elite California institutions that only use race-neutral processes.