16 Pages Posted: 28 Nov 2016 Last revised: 20 Mar 2017
Date Written: November 1, 2016
In Fisher v. University of Texas in June 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions. While recognizing a university’s interest in the educational benefits that derive from a diverse student body, Justice Kennedy cautioned in the majority opinion: “A university’s goals cannot be elusory or amorphous — they must be sufficiently measurable to permit judicial scrutiny of the policies adopted to reach them.”
Justice Kennedy’s measurability requirement is the single most important feature of his opinion. The constitutionality of race-conscious admissions going forward will depend on how universities measure diversity. No wonder critics of affirmative action are clamoring for disclosure of ever more data. The dilemma facing the nation’s universities is how to measure diversity while knowing that opponents of race-conscious admissions will utilize those metrics in litigation to challenge affirmative action programs.
In seeking to address this dilemma, university administrators reading Fisher may believe that they are required to measure diversity in more precise and even numerical terms. However, this Piece cautions against following that misguided impulse in the context of race-conscious admissions based on three primary observations. First, diversity-based affirmative action programs have survived past constitutional challenges in part because they are imprecise as to which individuals benefit from them and how much benefit those individuals receive. Second, this lack of precision may minimize some of the social divisiveness associated with race-conscious admissions policies, which may help diffuse political opposition to affirmative action and diminish the constitutional harms perceived by some Justices and potential litigants. Finally, Fisher does not actually require universities to measure diversity in more precise or numerical terms than previous affirmative action decisions. Given the current political climate, universities’ ability to maintain affirmative action programs under Fisher will depend on their ability to grasp and apply these principles.
To demonstrate the merits of imprecision in measuring diversity, this Piece proceeds in three parts. Part I surveys some key cases on affirmative action to show how and why the Court has been concerned with numerical considerations of race in college admissions. Part II examines two uses of numbers that have received scrutiny in cases leading up to Fisher: (1) the gathering of data on minority enrollment and student body diversity and (2) the use of metrics to describe diversity goals, especially the concept of “critical mass.” Part III studies scrutiny of the University of Texas’s admissions program in Fisher and teases out lessons for how universities should structure their admissions programs in light of Fisher. The Piece concludes that a degree of imprecision remains a requirement of constitutionally permissible affirmative action after Fisher, and universities interested in enrolling a diverse student body should therefore measure diversity using educational values rather than numerical metrics.
Keywords: affirmative action, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Justice Kennedy, social cohesion, racial conflict, diversity, inclusion, race, ethnicity, social inclusion, Grutter v. Bollinger, critical mass, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Justice Powell, quotas, higher education
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