Obama Backs University of Texas on Race in Admissions

By Mark Walsh — August 13, 2012 3 min read
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President Obama’s administration is supporting the race-conscious admissions system at the University of Texas at Austin, telling the U.S. Supreme Court that the educational benefits of diversity are critical to the national interest in the areas of defense, homeland security, commerce, and education.

“The armed services and numerous federal agencies have concluded that well-qualified and diverse graduates are crucial to the fulfillment of their missions,” says the brief filed Monday by U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. in the Texas case. “The nation’s interests in a range of areas—including military readiness, national security, public health, federal law enforcement, global competitiveness,
and education—will be more readily achieved if the pathways to professional success are visibly open to all segments of American society.”

The administration’s brief was part of the last wave of friend-of-the-court briefs in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Case No. 11-345). The case, which will be argued Oct. 10, examines whether the university’s consideration of race as part of a “holistic review” of applicants for undergraduate admissions is consistent with the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The University of Texas reinstated consideration of race after the Supreme Court upheld a race-conscious admissions program at the University of Michigan Law School in a 2003 decision known as Grutter v. Bollinger.

In that decision, a friend-of-the-court brief filed in favor of affirmative action by several retired military leaders was considered influential on the author of the opinion, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Thus, the Obama administration’s brief in the Fisher case presses numerous buttons about the importance of diversity in education in the pathway to military and other careers. Besides being signed by the solicitor general and other usual Department of Justice officials, the brief also bears the signature of the top legal officers of the defense, commerce, education, and labor departments.

“The United States armed services have a strong interest in a well-qualified and diverse officer corps, and the educational benefits of diversity are critical to serving that interest,” the brief says.

“A pipeline of highly qualified, diverse graduates” is also critical to fields such as national security, law enforcement, health, and other areas in which the federal government has programs to promote such diversity, the brief says.

The solicitor general argues that the university’s admissions program is consistent with the Grutter decision. Under the program, the university may consider race as one a factor in a “holistic” review of a student’s “personal achievement index,” a complex formula that applies to applicants not admitted under Texas’s Top Ten Percent law, which guarantees admission to Texas high school students who finish at the top of their graduating classes by grade-point average.

“Race is considered not on its own, but as a piece of information that provides valuable context in understanding an applicant’s achievements and his likely contributions to the university,” the brief says. “That individualized consideration is designed to work in conjunction with the Top Ten plan to enable the university to construct a class that is diverse in all ways valued by the institution.”

Other groups supporting the university have also filed friend-of-the-court briefs by today’s deadline. Groups supporting Abigail Fisher, the white student who challenged the university’s program after being denied admission in 2008, filed their briefs earlier this year.

Briefs on both sides are posted at this page maintained by the university.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.