Arguing for the freedom of colleges and universities to continue to use a well-rounded admissions process that considers the whole person to build diverse campus communities, Harvard University today filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas (UT) at Austin.
Abigail Fisher, who brought the suit, and her supporters seek to eliminate colleges’ ability to consider racial and ethnic background as one aspect of a much larger evaluation when choosing among otherwise academically qualified applicants. UT and other colleges, including Harvard, say that diverse educational experiences and interaction with people from different backgrounds are critical for preparing students for an increasingly diverse society and workforce. Oral arguments are scheduled for Dec. 9.
While Harvard has no direct involvement in the case, it has consistently contended in similar briefs filed in this and other court cases that a diverse student body is an essential part of creating a diverse educational experience that will better prepare graduates for future success.
“To become leaders in our diverse society, students today must have the ability to work with people from different backgrounds, life experiences, and perspectives,” said Robert Iuliano, Harvard’s senior vice president and general counsel. “Many colleges across America — including Harvard College — receive applications from far more highly qualified individuals each year than they can possibly admit.
“When choosing among academically qualified applicants, colleges must continue to have the freedom and flexibility to consider each person’s unique background and life experiences in order to provide the rigorous, enriching, and diverse campus environments that expand the horizons of all students. In doing so, American higher education institutions can continue to give every undergraduate exposure to peers with a deep and wide variety of academic interests, viewpoints, and talents in order to better challenge their own assumptions and develop the skills they need to succeed, and to lead, in an ever more diverse workforce and an increasingly interconnected world.”
In 2008, Fisher, a white student denied admission to UT, began litigation against the university, protesting its consideration of racial and ethnic background as one of many factors in deciding which academically qualified students to admit. In previous decisions in 1978 and 2003, the Supreme Court had agreed that institutions have a compelling interest in admitting students from all walks of life in order to expose all students to others from different backgrounds. But the court also ruled that any admissions policy designed to create a diverse campus must be narrowly tailored to achieve that goal.
In 2012, the Supreme Court overturned the decision of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which had upheld UT’s admissions policy, and sent the case back to that court for a second look. Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that the lower courts had failed to strictly scrutinize whether UT’s use of racial and ethnic background was narrowly tailored to achieve the university’s educational goals. After reviewing the case again last year, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals again ruled in favor of UT. Fisher and her supporters quickly appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed this June to hear the case a second time.
“It is more apparent now than ever that maintaining a diverse student body is essential to Harvard’s goals of providing its students with the most robust educational experience possible on campus and preparing its graduates to thrive in a complex and stunningly diverse nation and world,” Harvard’s brief reads. “These goals, moreover, are not held by Harvard alone, but are shared by many other universities that, like Harvard, have seen through decades of experience the transformative importance of student body diversity on the educational process. This court should therefore reaffirm its longstanding deference to universities’ academic judgment that diversity serves vital educational goals.”
Earlier this year, supporters of Fisher, who hope to curtail universities’ freedom to create diverse educational experiences for qualified students, brought similar litigation against Harvard.