High court takes on affirmative action

The nation’s highest court decided last week to reexamine affirmative action policies in higher education, a decision that could threaten universities’ efforts to broaden diversity.

The Supreme Court agreed Feb. 21 to hear a case regarding the constitutionality of admitting students with attention to race – a diversity-driven priority University President Steven Knapp has spotlighted in recent years.

The case in focus was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student claiming she was denied admission from the University of Texas because of her race, while less qualified minority applicants were accepted. Fisher is arguing that the university’s policies go beyond the national precedent set by a 2003 Supreme Court case that recognized states’ ability to promote diversity in admissions.

That case is viewed within higher education as a green light for affirmative action polices, but it has raised questions about whether racial preference policies are a form of discrimination.

Critics of affirmative action, including the American Civil Rights Institute and the Center for Equal Opportunity, are optimistic that a decision on Fisher’s case will roll back race considerations in admissions.

GW looks at each applicant holistically, considering race among other factors. Since creating a Council on Diversity and Inclusion in 2010, the University has made an effort to draw students from different racial backgrounds while fostering a campus culture of tolerance.

“The issue is not whether the Supreme Court is going to do damage to diversity efforts. I think the question is the extent of the damage,” Gregory Squires, a member and former chair of the University’s diversity council, said.

The sociology professor, who has written extensively on race-related issues, anticipates the court will either place more restrictions on the use of race in admissions or ban it outright.

“They’re looking for ways to limit race-conscious remedies,” he said. “It will make it much more difficult for universities to achieve their results.”

Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Reed said she was surprised the landmark case is being revisited so soon, as its decision has been “invaluable” in enabling universities to draw in a student population comprised of multiple races.

“GW has followed that guidance as one of its tools in pursuing a diverse student body, which we believe is a critical element of our mission to prepare our students for life and leadership in a pluralistic society,” Reed said.

She hopes the Texas case – which will begin arguments in October and could take months to hash out – will continue to “recognize diversity as a legitimate goal and provide guidance for colleges and universities that is fair and practical.”

About 28 percent of the University’s freshman class is multicultural, a 1-point increase from the previous year, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research.

Last fall, admissions policies at Harvard and Princeton Universities faced scrutiny when an Indian-American applicant complained Asian Americans were evaluated more harshly than applicants of other races. The cases against two of the country’s most selective universities were dropped this week.

If the court limits race-conscious admissions, Associate Dean and Vice President for Undergraduate Admissions Kathryn Napper said GW would put greater focus on recruiting from a broader base.

“The degree of effect, should the Supreme Court change its interpretation of using race as a factor in admissions, will depend on a number of factors,” she said, including where recruitment efforts are concentrated.

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