AUSTIN, Texas — More than a half-century after the Supreme Court ordered the University of Texas to admit a black man to its law school, the sprawling live-oak-and-limestone campus is again the site of a monumental battle over the use of race in university admissions.
But this time the challenge comes from a white woman. Abigail Fisher says the color of her skin cost her a spot in the 2008 freshman class at the university she had longed to attend since she was a child.
Under the banner of racial diversity, Fisher contends, the UT admissions process — which considers race as a factor in choosing one-quarter of its students — unfairly favors African-Americans and Hispanics at the expense of whites and Asian-Americans.
“If any state action should respect racial equality, it is university admission," Fisher said in her brief to the Supreme Court. “Selecting those who will benefit from the limited places available at universities has enormous consequences."
Enormous, too, could be the consequences of Fisher's case for the nation's selective universities, public and private. If the court rules broadly, college administrators could be barred from considering race in admissions.
Arguments in the case are scheduled for next month. The decision could be one of the most important and revealing of the Supreme Court's term, which begins Monday.
The court since 1978 has recognized that promoting diversity on the nation's campuses allows a limited consideration of race that normally the Constitution would not countenance.
It has imposed restrictions — no quotas, no racial balancing to match demographics, no automatic boost for an applicant because of minority status. But as recently as 2003, the justices reaffirmed the view that “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions."
But the court has changed dramatically since then, with a conservative majority now highly skeptical of — even hostile to — racial preferences. The justice most likely to decide the case for the divided court — Anthony Kennedy — has agreed in principle that diversity is important but has never voted to approve an affirmative-action plan.
At the same time, the national appeal of “diversity" — the goal of producing a legion of future leaders that matches the nation's changing complexion — has become so ingrained that more than 70 amicus briefs have been filed on UT's behalf.
Beyond traditional civil rights organizations, the support comes from military leaders, academics, psychologists, the business community and professional athletes. More than half of the Fortune 100 companies — American Express, Southwest Airlines and Halliburton among them — urge the justices to reaffirm the significance of diversity in higher education.
The Obama administration told the court that nothing less than the country's future depends on a “well-qualified and diverse pool" of college graduates “who possess the understanding of diversity that is necessary to govern and defend the United States."
UT President William Powers said that his admissions policies hew carefully to the guidelines of the Supreme Court's 2003 decision and that applicants of every race may benefit from the individualized treatment.
The only goal, he said in an interview, is to create a university environment where students are “learning and drawing from and sharing their experiences."