Obama Administration Offers Support for UT Austin’s Affirmative Action Policies

By Julianne Hing Apr 02, 2010

The Obama Administration filed an amicus brief in support of the University of Texas, Austin, which includes a component that considers race and ethnicity in its admissions decisions. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is currently hearing a case brought by two white students who were denied admission to UT Austin and claimed that their civil rights were violated. A federal judge affirmed the university’s right to take race and ethnicity into account in August of 2009. The prestigious public university currently operates with a hybrid admissions process whereby the vast majority of UT Austin’s admittees are accepted via an entirely race-neutral process. The entire top ten percent of any accredited Texas high school’s graduating class is assured admission to a public college or university. More than 80 percent of UT Austin’s fall 2009 freshman class was accepted through this rule, commonly called the "top ten percent plan." The rest of the freshman class is filled with admittees who are accepted through a "holistic review" where race alone is never a deciding factor. UT Austin does not and is actually forbidden to use quotas or a point system to give preference to students of color. Neither does the university keep track of the racial composition of the admitted pool of students in its process. In fact, fully 65 percent of the freshmen UT Austin admitted in 2009 through the so-called "non-top ten" rule were white. We’re not exactly talking radical policy here. Controversial, yes, but still legal and reasonable. The brief also points out the ways that white students, and indeed the entire student body, benefit from UT Austin’s policy. "[UT Austin] treats race not as a matter that defines each student, but as a factor that can place in context, and thus offer a deeper understanding of, a person’s experiences and accomplishments and her potential to contribute to the university community," the brief, which was submitted jointly by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, states. The case is seen as an attempts to challenge the 2003 Supreme Court decision in Grutter v. Bollinger that allowed a public institution to take race into consideration in admissions in very specific instances. The brief notes that UT Austin both complies with Grutter and upholds the ideals laid out in that decision. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote the Grutter decision, wrote that, "Effective participation of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our Nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized.” Ironically, the plaintiffs’ arguments are that UT Austin does not meet standards outlined in the Grutter decision. "This is a clever attempt by white plaintiffs to fashion a remedy when there’s not harm," said Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston. "They’re whistling past the graveyard." Olivas expects the federal court of appeals will uphold the trial court decision. Stay tuned for more updates.