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Court case threatens minority enrollment in sciences

Matt H Wade

The US Supreme Court today heard opening arguments in a case that could ban public universities from considering race when admitting students.

In the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, Abigail Fisher, a white woman from Sugar Land, Texas, sued the university after she was denied admission in 2008. At the University of Texas, which admits about 7,100 freshmen yearly, about three-quarters of new students are selected under a program that guarantees admission to Texans graduating in the top 8% of their high school classes. Applicants such as Fisher who do not meet this criterion are judged based on race and many other factors.

Some research advocates say the future diversity of the scientific workforce in the US could suffer a setback if the court reverses an earlier decision that allows race-conscious admissions policies.  Among the 1 million minority students enrolled at US research universities, an estimated 80% attend public institutions, according to a report by the Association for Public and Land-Grant Universities.

“We are having a difficult time getting diversity in many fields of science and engineering right now,” says Shirley Malcom, head of the Education and Human Resources directorate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) based in Washington, DC. She says a decision against affirmative action would “erode the capacity of institutions to try to get those numbers up.”

The subject has become a controversial one on US campuses following a 2003 Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger,  a case that revolved around admissions policies at the University of Michigan Law School. Although the decision gave university officials at pubic institutions the green light to take race into account when recruiting students, such polices have been banned in seven states: Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Washington.

In a supporting brief, the University of California sided with the University of Texas, citing its own experiences with California’s 1996 ban on affirmative action.

“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,” the University of California reports.

Fisher’s lawyers argue that admission based on high school rank already introduces enough racial diversity to the university, and that race-based practices are unjustified.

Today’s arguments hint that affirmative action on campus, if it survives Fisher v. University of Texas, may emerge in a different form. At issue is the question of whether it should be a time-limited policy used by universities to achieve a “critical mass” of diversity, after which time it would no longer be needed.

Chief Justice Roberts drilled the issue home by asking, “What is that number? What is the critical mass of African Americans and Hispanics at the university that you are working toward?”

Arguing the case for the University of Texas, Gregory Garre said, “Your Honor, we don’t have one.”

If the Court rules in Fisher’s favor, its decision may be limited to the University of Texas and institutions with similar admission systems. Or, the Court may decide more broadly against its own precedent and ban all affirmative action policies at US universities.

Proponents of affirmative action worry that such a decision would harm the higher education system. AAAS has joined the American Educational Research Association (AERA), a Washington-based non-profit research organization, in signing a second brief supporting the University of Texas.

“It’s a very compelling scientific case that there are tremendous benefits to majority and minority students of being educated in diverse educational environments,” says Felice Levine, executive director of the AERA. “That has positive benefits projecting into the workforce.”

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