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Paige Sutherland /MEDILL

At the University of Illinois at Chicago,  51 percent of the students are minorities (2012)

With affirmative action on trial, Illinois public universities may face changes in admissions process

by Paige Sutherland
Jan 30, 2013

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Paige Sutherland /MEDILL

Although affirmative action only applies to public universities, minority numbers are quite similar to private universities.

Illinois public universities may be forced to remove affirmative action from the admissions process before the next class enters in the fall. With the Supreme Court expected to issue a decision on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in the next few months, the fate of affirmative action is up in the air.

Two presidential executive orders in the early 1960s established affirmative action to create an equal playing field for women and minorities.

Universities across the country adopted affirmative action in admissions, both because of the law and because they say diverse communities create a better learning environment. Those policies have been challenged unsuccessfully several times over the years.

“It is easy to make the assumption that because we have a black president that we are post-racial,” said Todd Malone, assistant director of undergraduate admissions at Loyola University. “But if we don’t think race is a factor we are fooling ourselves.”

A court reversal of affirmative action in admissions would apply primarily to publicly funded universities. Loyola University as a private university wouldn’t be affected by the ruling, but considers diversity important in higher education.

Abigail Fisher has brought a case that some experts predict could upend those policies. Fisher argued that she was denied admission by UT in 2008 because she was white, a violation of her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

UT said she wasn’t in the top 10 percent of her high school class, the cut off for guaranteed admission. She ultimately enrolled in Louisiana State University.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case.

“This policy was needed in the past, but not anymore”, said Alexandra Ofori-Atta, an African-American freshman at Loyola University on the city’s North Side.

“The fact that the student is a minority shouldn’t matter,” she said. “I would rather be chosen for my skills rather than my skin color.”

Bill Burton, campus spokesman at University of Illinois at Chicago, said in an email that the laws governing race do not affect UIC because of the great diversity of their applicant pool. Whatever the U.S. Supreme Court may decide, the university has followed all laws regarding affirmative action and will continue to do so, Burton said.

Officials at the University of Illinois at Champaign- Urban declined to comment on this issue.

“We would think society is progressing where race wouldn’t be an issue, but unfortunately I don’t think society has evolved in that way yet,” said Alexandra Mason, a graduate student at UIC.

The privileges and disadvantages of race have not disappeared, they are just getting quieter, Loyola’s Malone said.

In the 18 years that Malone has worked in admissions he has seen a disparity of educational opportunity in minority students. Malone has visited thousands of high schools across the country and has seen places where it is almost impossible to learn.

Minorities need the advantage of affirmative action in order to make up for never having access to quality schools, said Gaby Lopez, a fifth year student at UIC.

“Race and socioeconomic status are connected, which taken into account shows that some people don’t have the same opportunities,” Lopez said.

David Embrick, associate professor of sociology and expert in race studies at Loyola University, said without affirmative action the racial composition of public universities would severely suffer.

“We are a society that is inherently racist,” said Embrick. “The reality is race matters.”

Although affirmative action was created in order to help minorities overcome the obstacles of inequality, some do not want such preferential treatment.

Every student should be accepted on merit alone, said Prachi Tiwari, an international graduate student at Loyola University.

“It would be nice to think that I got in because of me and not to fill a certain quota,” Tiwari said.