WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on June 23 upheld the right of universities to factor race into admissions decisions in order to promote greater diversity on college campuses.
SCOTUS' 4-3 rejection of a challenge to its 2013 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas forces its longstanding support for affirmative action in college admissions, a policy plank that has come under fire in recent years.
Abigail Fisher filed the original lawsuit in Texas in 2008, asserting that she had been denied admission to the University of Texas, Austin on the basis of her being white. Fisher has since graduated from Louisiana State University.
Having written a "friend of the court" brief in support of the University of Texas' position, University of California President Janet Napolitano and the system's 10 chancellors applauded SCOTUS' decision.
“Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the use of race-conscious measures in college admissions will contribute to greater equity and participation in public higher education for all American students," UC said in a prepared statement. "While it is good news on a critical issue for the country, the decision does not directly impact the University of California. Proposition 209 provides a blanket prohibition on preferences based on race, even if there is a compelling government interest to do so and the practice is narrowly defined. Nonetheless, the university will continue to do everything possible within the constraints of state law to broaden educational opportunity and increase the diversity of the student populations at all 10 University of California campuses.”
Racial discrimination and prejudice are alive and well in California universities, as they are in organizations of all types and throughout U.S. society, attorney W. Andrew Harrell told the Northern California Record.
"As in every organization in our society, racism rears its ugly head in our colleges and universities. It's an ingrained aspect of the legacy of race relations in U.S. history," he said.
Commenting on SCOTUS´ decision in Fisher v. the University of Texas, Harrell said: "People were surprised about this decision, particularly as it came out of Texas and because the Supreme Court affirmed the district court's decision."
Saying that the decision did not surprise him, Harrell added that he views evidence of the effectiveness of university affirmative action policies as equivocal. Nonetheless, he said he fully understands and appreciates the rationale that motivates them.
"There are good, well-established reasons for affirmative action. I would have been surprised had the Supreme Court ruled against it.
"I should point out that in the University of Texas case, the Supreme Court decided that race can be considered as a factor in admissions for the lower 90 percent of applicants," he added. "Skin color, income, etc. doesn't matter if applicants are in the top 10 percent."
Growing up in rural Tulare County, Harrell was admitted to elite Pomona College in 1963 along with two others from the area. Having earned a Ph.D. in statistics, he began teaching the subject at universities outside the state in 1971. He then returned to California, passed the bar exam and began practicing law in 1995.
Having come to specialize in education law, Harrell has represented California college students in numerous racial prejudice and discrimination cases associated with research and scholarship, he explained.
Based on data accumulated from cases he has handled for California university students, Harrell said there appears to be a systemic bias against visible minority students.
"Looking at my data, nearly all my clients who have lost in court over the past three years have been minorities," he said. It's a problem throughout the educational system, and in particular with regard to disputes with universities. The odds are about 10:1 against you if you're a visible minority."
"The biggest problem I have is when it comes to non-white students already enrolled who come to have some sort of dispute regarding grades and performance. Some seem to go out of their way and try to kick these students out, perhaps as some sort of backlash against affirmative action."
More specifically, Harrell has represented visible minority students in cases where it appeared that medical schools made a conscious effort to boot them out, he added.
"It's difficult and costly to prove that and my clients cannot afford it, but it's there. Someday the courts may take a look at this problem."