Civil Rights Project Mobilizes 444 Scholars Behind Effort To Uphold UT-Austin Admissions Policy

Unless selective universities are allowed to consider race when admitting students, the institutions won’t be able to create the kind of diverse classrooms needed to prepare students for jobs and leadership roles in an increasingly multiracial society and global marketplace.

That is the crux of one of the major arguments being advanced in a 40-page brief signed by more than 400 scholars in support of the University of Texas at Austin’s defense of race-conscious affirmative action. The case is set to go before the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.

Developing the brief and getting the 444 researchers to sign off on it was no light feat, according to the organizers. The process started in February the day after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the UT Austin case, when UCLA Civil Rights Project Director Gary Orfield sent out an electronic query to several researchers asking if they wanted to help put together a brief.

The number of interested scholars grew, and eventually conference calls were held every Friday morning to help shape the document into what it is today.

“In a way, these weekly calls became an ongoing peer review in which ideas and language were challenged and improved, and a wider and wider array of research from a number of disciplines was considered,” Orfield explained in a statement about the development of the document.

After a first draft was prepared, it was circulated around the country.

“We asked people to read it, to comment if something was inaccurate or could be improved, and to sign it if they agreed,” Orfield stated. “It was deeply impressive to see the energy, commitment and knowledge of many colleagues who put other work aside to forge this document.”

“It was the academic world at its best,” he added.

The document—technically known as an amicus curiae brief, or “friend of the court” brief—was submitted last week by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, which Orfield co-founded. The counsel of record for the brief is Dr. Liliana Garces, Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration at George Washington University.

It seeks to frame the issue of diversity as a both a compelling national interest and as a matter of global competence.

“Given that selective universities are the training ground for the nation’s most influential jobs and leadership positions, it is critical that students attending these institutions have the opportunity to engage with diverse peers in meaningful ways,” the document states.

“Racially diverse learning environments prepare all students more fully to become leaders and workers in a diverse society, nationally and globally,” the brief states. “They also help break patterns of racial segregation, which in the long term benefits the entire nation.”

While the brief cites a voluminous amount of research said to demonstrate the purported educational advantages of diversity in institutions of higher learning, as well as the disadvantages of being in a racially isolated institution, it also seeks to show that alternative measures to achieve diversity—such as Texas’s Ten Percent Plan, wherein the top 10 percent of Texas high school students are guaranteed seats at the state’s public colleges and universities—have come up short.

In essence, the brief maintains that Grutter v. Bollinger, the 2003 Supreme Court case that permitted the narrow use of race in the admissions process, needs to remain the law of the land or else diversity of America’s institutions of higher learning will suffer.

“The large body of diversity research conducted before and since the Court’s ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger … demonstrates that the University needs to continue to consider race in admissions in order to leverage diversity to provide educational excellence,” the brief states. “Without the complement of a Grutter-like policy the percent plan has not achieved the desired results at the University (of Texas at Austin), and the plan has worked far less well at the other flagship campus in Texas.”

“Thus,” the brief continues, “it is apparent that percent plans alone will not yield the level of diversity needed to leverage the educational benefits of diversity at public education institutions in other states, or at the nation’s great private universities.”

 The brief itself is relatively light reading, but it represents a scholarly overview of the much heavier reading that would be necessary if one were to actually read all of the studies cited in the dozens of footnotes.

Those studies touch on topics that range from “stereotype threat,” described in the brief as a “physiological response that limits the performance of racial minorities and non-minorities alike in situations where they are at risk of confirming a negative stereotype about their racial group’s capacity,” to research that repudiates the so-called “mismatch hypothesis,” or the idea that minority students who go to selective colleges and who had test scores below those of their mainstream peers graduate at lower rates.

The legal linchpin of the document is its citation of the U.S. Supreme Court itself, or at least the U.S. Supreme Court as it existed in 2003 when it decided the Grutter case.

“As the Court recognized in Grutter, a diverse student body promotes learning outcomes, and “[t]hese benefits are ‘important and laudable,’ because ‘classroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting’ when the students have ‘the greatest possible variety of backgrounds,’” the brief states. “Furthermore, research published since Grutter supports the Court’s conclusion.

“The presence and participation in the classroom of racially diverse students enhances the content of the curriculum, class discussions, and students’ motivation to work with peers from other racial groups.”

The UCLA CRP brief is one of several that were due today in support of UT Austin.

Other supportive briefs include one filed by the American Association for Affirmative Action. That brief argues that the attack on UT-Austin’s admissions process relies upon a number of “false premises.” Among those premises, the brief says, are that “race and ethnicity no longer matter in America” and that “we can never consider differences in race or ethnicity in a positive way.”