The U.S. Supreme Court today decided to allow universities to continue to use race as a factor in the admissions process.
Justices said federal affirmative action policies may continue as long as they are implemented properly and no other “workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” The justices also made clear that lower courts have the obligation to make their own independent judgments when it comes to “strict scrutiny” whether universities have achieved critical mass and no longer need to consider race.
“There was nothing overly revolutionary or radical in today’s ruling,” said James Beckman, a legal studies professor at UCF who is an expert on affirmative action in higher education. He penned a law encyclopedia on the topic that is housed at the Supreme Court library.
“The Supreme Court in Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin avoided the most extreme path of entirely dismantling affirmative action, and instead opted for a middle-of-the-road approach, which reversed the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. That court had upheld the University of Texas plan as constitutional. The Supreme Court focused on the lower court’s failure to uphold the rigorous level of judicial review needed in race classification cases and remanded the case back to the lower court for further review.”
In the 7-to-1 decision, the court declined to overturn any of its landmark-cases regarding affirmative action—such as Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003 and Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978.
Beckman said: “This is a positive result for proponents for affirmative action as, going into the Fisher case, proponents of affirmative action were acutely aware that it was possible that a majority on the court could have dismantled affirmative action outright, pronounced the complete prohibition on the use of race or ethnicity in admissions decisions (or related governmental actions), overturned Grutter and/or Bakke, and declared America’s experiment with remedial race-conscious preferences to be at an end and no longer necessary in modern society. Instead, the ruling was a narrow one, saving the broader battle over affirmative action and a possible final end point for another day.”
For public universities in Florida, which have not used affirmative action for years, the case has little impact. However, had the court dismantled affirmative action, private universities that receive federal funding would have had trouble continuing to use the policy. Agencies accepting federal funds have to oblige by the Civil Rights Act, which mirrors the requirements set forth by the Supreme Court’s Equal Protection Clause jurisprudence under the 14th Amendment.
Beckman is the editor of a forthcoming three-volume anthology about affirmative action. Four UCF professors are contributing along with 30 others from across the nation. He’s finishing the manuscript now, which is expected to be published on the one-year anniversary of the Fisher decision, June 2014.