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Rebecca LaFlure/MEDILL

Northwestern University students study at the campus's student union  Monday. Northwestern officials say campus diversity  could be affected by the Supreme Court's affirmative action decision.

Possible effects of affirmative action case vary by university

by Rebecca LaFlure
Oct 30, 2012

The Supreme Court has yet to make a decision on the case challenging the use of race as a factor in college admissions, but some Illinois universities have already begun to assess how its outcome could affect their admissions policies.

Supreme Court justices heard arguments Oct. 10 in the Fisher v. University of Texas case. Abigail Fisher, a white female, applied for the University of Texas undergraduate program in 2008 and said she was denied admission due to the university’s policy that uses race as one of many factors in admissions. She charged the policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The district court and U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of UT, but the Supreme Court now has the opportunity to reverse, or uphold, those decisions. If the Supreme Court decides race-based affirmative action is unconstitutional, it could affect public and private universities across the nation.

While University of Chicago and Northwestern University officials have voiced their support for considering race in admissions, the concept remains a divisive issue. A Pew research study released in June found that 62 percent of those surveyed disagreed with the idea of giving preferential treatment to minorities. 

“It’ll be a blockbuster if race no longer can be used,” said Sheldon Nahmod, law professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “Everyone has been relying on this … since the ‘70s.”

Impact on Illinois schools is mixed

The effect the Supreme Court’s decision could have on admissions policies and student bodies across Illinois greatly varies by university.
A decision to no longer include race as a factor in admissions would impact competitive universities like Northwestern and the University of Chicago. While they are private institutions, both schools receive federal funding and must go along with whatever the Supreme Court determines. 

Northwestern and the University of Chicago were among dozens of universities nationwide to file briefs with the court, arguing that affirmative action helps create diverse student bodies conducive to learning. 
Prior Supreme Court decisions ruled that universities can use race as one of many factors in admissions, as long as it’s not determinative and there is no racial quota. 

Tom Cline, vice president and general counsel of Northwestern, said this is exactly the method Northwestern uses in its admissions process in an effort to create a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Northwestern takes race into account, as well as geography, socioeconomic status and other factors.

“If you eliminate all of those other factors, you have very little to go on other than things like test scores and grade-point averages,” Cline said. “That, I think, would have a significant impact on the diversity of the student body — and a negative impact.”

However, other Illinois university officials say they don’t foresee an impact on their campuses. Officials at Southern Illinois University and Northern Illinois University said race is not considered in undergraduate admissions.

“It is unlikely that this Supreme Court decision will impact our current undergraduate admissions practices since they are already race-neutral in nature,” said Kelly Wesener-Michael, acting vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, in an email. “However, any actual impact is unknown until the Supreme Court renders its decision."

Bill Burton, spokesman at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the case is unlikely to affect UIC because the university gets such a diverse pool of applicants anyway. According to the university, 58 percent of its students are minorities — a fact Burton said would remain regardless of the court’s decision.

Likely outcome unclear

Nahmod, of IIT, said the court faces two big questions: Whether UT’s admissions policy, specifically, is constitutional and the larger issue of whether race has a place in college admissions at any institution. 
UT helped increase diversity on campus by automatically admitting all students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class in the state. UT then used race as one of many factors in determining who should fill the remaining spots.

The plaintiff’s argument was that “when you’ve got a top 10 percent law that’s obviously race neutral, there’s simply no reason to have an affirmative action plan, which uses race as a factor above and beyond that,” Nahmod explained.

Nahmod said he suspects the court will simply concentrate on UT’s policy and not overturn previous affirmative action rulings. 

But Northwestern’s Cline said the outcome of the case is far from clear-cut. 
Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from the case, leaving four justices who at various times have indicated they are opposed to affirmative action, and three who most people believe are in favor of it, Cline said. Justice Anthony Kennedy remains the wild card in the case and could sway the court’s decision in either direction.

Cline said he expects a decision to come sometime after the start of next year.

“I suspect that there’s going to be a lot of back and forth between the justices,” Cline said. “It doesn’t look like a slam-dunk winner.”