(New York, NY) – This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of the admissions program utilized by the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) to assemble a diverse student body. Fisher v. Texas is the first federal appellate challenge to the use of race in university admissions since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. The Fifth Circuit’s unanimous decision affirms that UT Austin’s admissions plan is entirely consistent with Grutter.
In an opinion authored by Judge Patrick Higginbotham (PDF), the Fifth Circuit recognized “[t]he need for a state’s leading educational institution to foster civic engagement and maintain visibly open paths to leadership.” The opinion further emphasized that “[c]ultivating paths to leadership for underrepresented groups serves both the individual and the public, sustaining an infrastructure of leaders in an increasingly pluralistic society.”
“Our nation’s future depends on students being exposed to diversity in their formative educational experiences,” said John Payton, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF). “Nowhere is diversity more important than at the flagship public university in the increasingly diverse state of Texas.”
This lawsuit was launched in 2008 by two White students who were denied entry to UT Austin. Most students are admitted to UT Austin under the Top Ten Percent Plan, which guarantees admission to all Texas students in the top ten percent of their high school class. The remaining students are admitted under a holistic admissions process that considers race as one of many factors in a student’s application file.
During oral argument before the Fifth Circuit and in a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the Black Student Alliance at UT Austin, LDF emphasized the isolation experienced by the small numbers of African-American students who enrolled at UT Austin in the eight-year period before it reinstituted race as a factor in admissions for the 2005 entering class. By themselves, the Top Ten Percent Plan and other race-neutral efforts that the University pursued were insufficient to achieve a critical mass of African-American students and other students of color. As a consequence, LDF argued that all students were deprived of the educational benefits of diversity. It was for this reason, that UT Austin decided, after careful evaluation, to institute the limited race-conscious admissions process, which the Fifth Circuit panel unanimously agreed is a lawful application of Grutter.
“Today’s ruling affirms that universities have wide latitude to seek diversity in their student bodies,” said LDF Assistant Counsel Joshua Civin, who presented oral argument in the Fifth Circuit on behalf of LDF and the Black Student Alliance.
The law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski LLP is co-counsel with LDF in this case. Also supporting UT Austin’s position in this case were the United States, the American Council of Education and other higher education organizations, and numerous civil rights groups including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and the Asian American Justice Center.