by David G. Hinojosa, National Director of Policy- Intercultural Development Research Association, and counsel for various amici in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin since 2008
Last week during oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (UT), the Supreme Court found itself at ground zero between the pursuit of racial diversity and opportunity in higher education for all students and the desire of the “old guard” to maintain systemic privileges that tend to favor white students. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer touted the benefits of diversity and how UT’s dual admissions program (holistic and Top Ten Percent) satisfied the Supreme Court’s tenets of lawful affirmative action programs. Meanwhile, Chief Justice John Roberts asked how a student’s race could matter in an astrophysics class, and Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that selective universities like UT perhaps do a disservice to Black students by admitting them. Plaintiff Abigail Fisher did not raise these issues during oral argument or in her briefs, and they were not part of the evidentiary record, leaving many observers to speculate where these justices may be headed.
This is especially concerning because for nearly 40 years, the Court has grounded its affirmative action admission rulings by recognizing the important educational benefits that flow from diversity, including racial diversity, in higher education (and K-12 schooling in Seattle v. PICS, J. Kennedy concurring) and by deferring to the educational expertise of universities in determining their educational mission and how racial diversity fits in the mission. The record in Fisher shows how UT’s diversity plan does not run afoul of the Constitution by pursuing diversity solely for the sake of racial balancing. Instead, UT’s plan reflects “a reasoned, principled explanation for the academic decision” that adds race as one of several factors considered for non-Top Ten Percent applicants. And both UT’s brief, as well as several amicus briefs including those submitted by social scientists, psychologists and educational researchers, reflect substantial research showing the benefits of diversity and the link between diversity and greater opportunities for all students.
So what exactly are these “benefits” and who benefits? The research cited in the aforementioned briefs demonstrates that the benefits of diversity extend to learning opportunities for all students, not just those minority students admitted. For example, research examining the impact of diverse learning environments show that both majority and minority students’ cognitive skills improve. This should not be surprising as exposure to different opinions on a subject by students of different backgrounds could logically impact critical thinking and improve problem solving. A Michigan study of 500 students found the diverse classroom learning environment resulted in livelier and more engaging discussions. Diversity in higher education also promotes civic engagement, builds leadership, and prepares students for life after college. Several briefs filed by the business sector, including Fortune 100 companies, explained how racial diversity in university settings is “a business and economic imperative” in the growing, diverse global market.