On June 24, the Supreme Court sent an affirmative action case back to a lower appeals court in a 7-1 ruling that is unlikely to affect most colleges, including MIT, at least for now.
Fisher v. University of Texas was one of several high-profile cases on the Supreme Court’s docket last term, but its outcome was anticlimactic compared to the landmark rulings on voting rights and gay marriage handed down the same week.
The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was denied entrance into the University of Texas at Austin, filed suit in 2008, claiming that the university discriminated against her on the basis of her race. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case early last year.
The Court, in a 7-1 vote, ordered the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal to give Fisher another look, since it had failed to apply a standard of “strict scrutiny” to the university’s affirmative action policy the first time around.
A diverse student body is a compelling enough reason to justify race-conscious admissions policies, but only if “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity,” the Court held, citing previous cases.
MIT’s admissions office will study the decision to “assure our adherence to the standards articulated by the Court,” Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 and Dean for Undergraduate Education Daniel E. Hastings PhD ’80 wrote in a letter to the MIT community. MIT considers applicants’ race and ethnicity in admissions, but “from time to time we review the need to use race,” Dean of Admissions Stu Schmill told The Tech.
“I understand the Court in Fisher affirmed the principles of Grutter and Bakke, and so it should not affect MIT admissions policy,” Schmill said, referring to Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), earlier affirmative action cases.
Bakke permitted universities to “narrowly tailor” affirmative action policies to achieve a “compelling governmental interest” like diversity, but deemed racial quotas unconstitutional. Grutter found the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action policy to be narrowly tailored and constitutional. Grutter should not be confused with Gratz v. Bollinger, which found the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy of giving minorities an automatic advantage not narrowly tailored, and therefore in violation of the 14th Amendment.
MIT has actively supported affirmative action. In August 2012, MIT and 13 other institutions, including the 8 Ivy League schools, filed an amicus brief in support of the University of Texas, which admits about a quarter of its undergraduate body through a process that takes into account each applicant’s race. The majority of its students are admitted based only on their high school class rankings.