Court Revisits Affirmative Action
Published: Sunday, October 14, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
Last Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court began oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas, a case whose ruling could redefine the landscape of higher education. Abigail Fisher, a young white woman, was rejected from the University of Texas at Austin in 2008. She believed that the university—which considers race during its admissions process—had violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by discriminating against her based on her race, and filed a lawsuit against it. The case has risen through the lower courts, and now has the potential to change the admissions process at schools across America, including Boston College.
“Boston College has always practiced affirmative action in compliance with the Supreme Court’s belief that diversity is a compelling interest for universities in crafting their student populations,” said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admissions.
The last time the Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action was in 2003, when it upheld the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies in Grutter v. Bollinger. Mahoney believes that BC’s affirmative action policies are in line with the opinion the Supreme Court released for that case.
“We evaluate all applicants in a holistic manner, considering both objective and subjective criteria in making our decisions,” Mahoney said. “Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in her majority opinion from 2003: ‘Instead, a university may consider race or ethnicity only as a plus factor in a particular candidate’s file, without insulating the individual from comparison with all other candidates for the available seats.’ This captures the kind of thoroughness and sensitivity which Undergraduate Admission brings to the review of every application.”
Many colleges and universities have come together to support the University of Texas in this case. BC is one of the institutions making an argument for affirmative action.
“Boston College this summer joined an amicus brief with other Jesuit universities, including Georgetown, supporting the University of Texas in this case,” Mahoney said. “Over 100 amicus briefs have been filed with the Supreme Court in favor of maintaining affirmative action.” Fewer than 20 briefs have been filed in support of Fisher thus far.
While the administrations of many colleges and universities strongly and publicly support affirmative action, it has caused enough controversy to lead to its banning at public universities in several states, including Florida and California. Colleges in strong support of the policy see great benefits in the diversity it fosters.
“My personal belief is that diversity of all kinds—geographic, ethnic, religious, thought—greatly enhances the educational experience here at Boston College and elsewhere,” Mahoney said. “By meeting people from different parts of the country or the world, people from different ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds, or people with different religious beliefs, our students encounter multiple ideas and ways of viewing the world. To me, as a lifelong educator, this is where real learning occurs.”
Mahoney also believes that affirmative action helps BC achieve its mission as a Jesuit, Catholic institution of higher learning.
“I believe that a diverse student body here at Boston College helps us to fulfill one of the Ignatian ideals of education,” Mahoney said. “That is, we are about the business of pursuing knowledge on all fronts with a mind toward discovering truth. We are better equipped to know the truth when we have been exposed to multiple perspectives on the big questions we face as human beings.”
The Supreme Court will not issue a ruling until next year. A decision in favor of the University of Texas would leave higher education unchanged. A decision in favor of Fisher, which would overturn Grutter v. Bollinger, would declare the use of racial preferences in college admissions unconstitutional for public universities. Many private universities are not beyond the reach of the influence of this case, however. Any private college or university that receives federal funds, including BC, would also have to do away with affirmative action practices if Grutter is overturned.