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Race should be part of college admissions process, UC officials say in briefs

The U.S. Supreme Court will take on the latest chapter in affirmative-action related cases when it hears Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in October. California and UC, among dozens of others, filed briefs in support of the university's use of race in its admissions decisions.
The U.S. Supreme Court will take on the latest chapter in affirmative-action related cases when it hears Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in October. California and UC, among dozens of others, filed briefs in support of the university's use of race in its admissions decisions. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The state of California, the University of California and dozens of other groups filed briefs today in support of the University of Texas at Austin in a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging its use of race in undergraduate admissions decisions.

Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin is the latest chapter in a series of affirmative action-related cases that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case will go before the justices in October; amicus briefs were due Monday. Abigail Noel Fisher filed suit in 2008 after she applied to be an undergraduate at UT and was denied admission.

Fisher, who is white, alleges that the UT's use of race as a factor in its admissions process is unconstitutional.

The case has garnered much interest because of the impact such a ruling could have on the continuously changing landscape of college admissions. 

In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, making it the first state in the country to prohibit the use of race in college admissions. The measure went into effect two years later and resulted in plummeting racial diversity numbers, according to the state's and UC's briefs.

"We feel the court should know of our experience before they make a decision in this," said UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein. "...We've been trying to get our numbers up for the past 15 years, but it's not working...We have a moral obligation to get the word out."

In its 35-page brief, UC outlines its 15-year effort to increase the diversity of its student body without using race. The 10-campus system has had "limited success" by trying to increase outreach to lower-income students and schools, among other tactics, and yet its schools have still not regained pre-Proposition 209 diversity levels, the brief states.

"There is really no effective stand-in for race," Klein said. "We're not advocating there be quota systems or anything like that, but we're saying it should be in the mix. It's really artificial to exclude it. How can we talk about geographic diversity, gender diversity, sexual orientation — and then we close our eyes and are race-blind. It's silly."

The admission rate for "underrepresented minority students" at UC Berkeley fell from 54.6 percent in 1995 to 20.2 percent in 1998. At UCLA the numbers dropped from 52.4 percent to 24 percent, respectively, according to the brief.

Racial diversity remains an issue for the system today, with the 2012 admission figures showing particularly meager numbers of African-American students. African-American students made up 3.5 percent of admissions at UC Berkeley, and 4.4 percent systemwide this year. That compares to 7.3 percent of those admitted at UC Berkeley in 1995.

Even Latino students, who now make up a far greater number of high school graduates, have still not regained their pre-Proposition 209 enrollment numbers of 18.5 percent admitted at UC Berkeley in 1995, the brief states. That number was 17.8 percent for 2012.

The figures carry over to the graduate level, where in 10 of the last 11 academic years, at least two of UC's six business schools enrolled no African-Americans, according to the UC brief.

UC officials concluded in a 2003 study titled "Undergraduate Access to the University of California After the Elimination of Race-Conscious Policies" that "in a highly selective institution, implementing race-neutral policies leads to a substantial decline in the proportion of entering students who are African-American, American Indian and Latino."

UC calls the "disappointing results" of its attempts to increase diversity despite Proposition 209 one reason the state of California also filed a brief today supporting the UT. The brief states:

"If the efforts of California's public institutions of higher education continue to be unsuccessful at achieving the needed diversity of their student bodies without resort to race-conscious admission methods, California's voters may choose to abandon the choices reflected in Proposition 209. If they do, California will need the flexibility and deference permitted by Grutter."

"Grutter" refers to the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled by a 5-4 opinion that the University of Michigan Law School's use of race in admissions was so narrowly tailored and included such a highly individualized review of each candidate that race was one of many factors and not a deciding variable in admissions.

At the core of the argument by California and UC is what UT argues in its brief: that diversity has "invaluable educational benefits" that include "promoting cross-racial understanding; breaking down racial, ethnic, and geographic stereotypes; and creating an environment where students do not feel like spokespersons for their race."

But attorneys for Fisher argue that UT moves beyond Grutter by using "racial balancing" to try to match the state's racial makeup. According to their brief, "the Court should not acknowledge an interest that would justify racial engineering at every stage of the university experience."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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