In 2008, a young lady named Abigail Fisher applied to the University of Texas at Austin. In spite of her decent grades, she was rejected. At some point following Fisher’s receipt of the sad thin envelope, she decided she knew why she had been denied admission.
She decided it had happened because she was white.
It’s true that the University of Texas, in efforts to improve diversity, does consider race in the admissions process, as sanctioned by a 2003 Supreme Court decision (Grutter v. Bollinger) in which the court determined that the affirmative action efforts undertaken by the University of Michigan Law School were in the best interests of the university.
This month, Abigail Fisher -- now 22 years old and a graduate of Louisiana State University -- is herself before the Supreme Court over race in college admissions, as a result of having chosen to sue the University of Texas over her rejection. If Fisher wins and the previous 2003 decision is overturned, that would render affirmative action efforts at all public American universities illegal.
I have an interest in this case, and it’s not just an intellectual one. In a former life, I spent eight years working in college admissions. I worked for a private college, what one might kindly refer to as a B-school -- it wasn’t a bad school, by any means, but it was the kind of place people applied to as a plan B, in case the university they REALLY wanted to attend didn’t accept them.
I used Silly Putty to obscure the university name, because believe it or not it was the closest thing I had to hand suitable for the task.
That’s actually how I wound up there. When I finished my first master’s degree I had grand plans of getting my PhD and proceeding on to a big important thinky life in the Ivory Tower. But I got rejected by basically everyone (I take some pride in my observation that, over the years, I have been denied admission by some of the finest universities in the country) and in my panic at the prospect of having to go get a job in an office like everybody else, I applied to another master’s program at the college in question, and after some pleading with the program director (NOT PROUD), I was admitted.
And once I finished that master’s, again with no shining prospects for a career as an academic, I got a job in admissions. At least it was something I knew.
In my admissions years, when strong applications from people of color arrived, our joy in the office was freely expressed. Like the majority of private American universities -- or universities in general -- our student body was overwhelmingly white, and the college I worked for was committed to "improving diversity" -- "improving diversity" being the watchword for a process that was paid a lot of lip service with very little concrete action, not to mention frequent gaps in understanding at the upper levels of the administration.
Still, in our office, the most promising prospective students of color with the best applications were not only given top priority, but were also more likely to be offered what meager scholarship funds we had available, in hopes this would entice these applicants to attend our university over a larger one with lower tuition or more financial assistance on hand.
The reason we were so focused on this was because we understood that a diversity of students palpably improves the educational experience for everyone. As someone who spent a ridiculous number of years in higher education, both in the classroom and out, I can tell you this for sure: your learning is advanced when you are forced to do it in a room filled with people who have a wide variety of backgrounds, and the more different they are from your own and from each others’, the better.
But getting back to the University of Texas: Abigail Fisher failed to qualify for the Top Ten Percent program, in which the top ten percent of every Texas high school graduating class is automatically admitted, regardless of race or any other characteristic. These students represent the majority (over 80% in 2008) of the incoming class. The space that is left is filled by students selected for their extracurricular well-roundedness as well as their grades and test scores, and, to a lesser extent, the degree to which they might contribute to the diversity of the student body.
Fisher applied to the University of Texas with a GPA of 3.59 and 1180 on her SAT. These are not terrible numbers, but they’re not exactly earth-shatteringly excellent either. They are the grades of a slightly above average student who is apparently also burdened with a massive sense of entitlement.
Prior to the 2003 decision allowing race to be a limited factor in admissions, the student population at the University of Texas at Austin was only 3% black students. (For comparison, black people represent roughly 12% of the state’s entire population.) Since the 2003 decision, that 3% has doubled, which would certainly seem to indicate that the policy has had a positive effect.
These affirmative action efforts are of particular interest in context with UT’s legacy of racial issues going back to the original founding of the university and persisting to this day.
A campus statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was defaced in 2003 and again in 2004. The Daily Texan, the campus newspaper, came under fire earlier this year when it published a cartoon that mocked the killing of Trayvon Martin, unarmed Florida teenager, and ran a feature referring to him as “a colored boy.”
Certainly this is a community that could use some help addressing its racism. But the University of Texas is hardly alone in these problems; college campuses have long been battlegrounds on which developing young minds explore our toxic culture around race.
Just last month, a student at Towson University outside Baltimore made news when he proposed the founding of a white student union at the majority white institution, betraying a stunning lack of awareness as to why black student unions evolved in the first place, while making idiotic assertions like, “[The Confederate flag] has never been a symbol of race... Someone who has no connection to Dixie, no connection to the confederacy just doesn’t understand it.” Yes, dear, nobody but you understands what the Civil War was about. The injustice of it all.
My point being that while racial tension is virtually unavoidable in the university environment, pretending it doesn’t exist is not a solution -- nor is attempting to placate entitled white students by ignoring race in the admissions process.
The Supreme Court is fairly split on the affirmative action issue, with the liberal justices leaning toward accepting UT’s current policies, and with those same policies facing some tough questions from the conservative judges, particularly Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia, who seemed to enjoy mocking the notion that race could possibly be a useful minor factor in admissions decisions:
“Should someone who is one-quarter Hispanic check the Hispanic box or some different box?” the chief justice wanted to know. “What about one-eighth?” he persisted. “Would it violate the honor code for someone who is one-eighth Hispanic and says ‘I identify as Hispanic’ to check the Hispanic box?”
Justice Scalia piled on: “Did they require everybody to check a box or they have somebody figure out, oh, this person looks one thirty-second Hispanic and that’s enough?”
On it went, and it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that ridicule rather than a search for understanding was the name of the game. “How many people are there in the affirmative action department of the University of Texas?” Justice Scalia asked Mr. Garre. “Do you have any idea? There must be a lot of people to, you know, to monitor all these classes and do all of this assessment of race throughout the thing.” Justice Scalia mused that if the court invalidated the program, “there would be a large number of people out of a job,” a prospect that seemed to tickle his fancy.
You can read the whole 80-page transcript online, although I can’t recommend it unless you enjoy reams of meticulously transcribed conversations in which people are constantly interrupting each other.
The University of Texas has always maintained that Abigail Fisher would not have been admitted regardless of race as an admissions factor, as race is but one small consideration alongside extracurricular activities and other characteristics assessed in the admissions process, and Fisher's application simply wasn't strong enough.
Nevertheless, Fisher is protesting the perceived injustice of her misfortune at being a part of the dominant racial group in the US -- an injustice for which she can’t actually produce evidence of any legitimate injury -- and therefore her failure to demonstrate more than middling good grades and a few volunteer opportunities as proof that she has something worthwhile to offer the University of Texas community.
But as in most situations, there’s more to this story than Fisher’s disappointment:
She may be the vessel, but it is [Edward] Blum who is the driving force of Fisher v. University of Texas -- the current Supreme Court case that may lend the fatal blow to affirmative action for which staunch conservatives have longed. He recruited her through his legal defense fund group, Project on Fair Representation, which he's used to fight race-focused legislation for two decades now. The legal fees are reportedly paid through support of DonorsTrust, a group that has directed millions of dollars to the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity Foundation.
Ultimately, when universities attempt to improve diversity, it is not out of some implied white guilt; it’s not a thing smartypants or elitist liberals do to feel superior or altruistic. It’s because a diverse student body makes a college better. It’s because having to deal with people who are different from you in a compassionate, face-to-face environment makes you smarter, and will make you a more successful human being.
And it’s also because, as much as we’d like to believe that people get things just because they work hard for them, the real-world playing field is not so perfectly level. Of course, for political reasons some folks don’t want anyone to recognize this; they’d rather we all keep wandering in a fog of self-aggrandizing entitlement and ignore the benefits of embracing difference and addressing real injustices.
When I received my numerous rejection letters over those years when I was still chasing an academic dream, it never occurred to me that they could have been influenced by my race. It never occurred because, being white, I have the option to live in a world in which racism doesn’t affect my opportunities. Instead, I presumed that I was simply not a good fit for their institution, and I trusted that their admissions decision was the correct one both for me, and for the college. Even when I sobbed about it.
Abigail Fisher, it seems, cannot imagine why any college wouldn’t want to admit her. But given her lawsuit and her apparent insistence that she deserves admission to the college of her choice simply because she wants it and thinks she worked hard enough for it, I can’t imagine why any college would. I think we have plenty of that sentiment in college classrooms right now. And everywhere else in the US too.