University of Texas Is Finished Fighting Affirmative Action, Officials Say
After years of appeals, the University of Texas said last month that it was finished fighting its landmark court battle over affirmative action.
The decision effectively ends the case named for Cheryl Hopwood and three other Whites who sued the university’s law school in 1992, saying they were denied admission because of a policy that gave preferential treatment to less-qualified Hispanic and Black applicants.
The lawsuit wound up before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in 1996 rejected the university’s contention that it should be allowed to consider race in admissions.
The so-called Hopwood ruling didn’t block the school from using race as a factor in admissions, but prompted public colleges and universities in Texas to drop affirmative action policies.
The ruling was allowed to stand in 1996 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear another challenge by the university in June.
The school could have kept the case alive by appealing the 5th Circuit’s decision ordering it to pay legal fees, but university President Larry Faulkner said that wouldn’t happen.
“We vigorously pursued appeals, arguing the complex issues surrounding affirmative action, to resolve these important issues for the nation at large,” Faulkner says. “The Hopwood case will clearly not be the one that leads to this resolution.”
The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled definitively on affirmative action since the 1978 Bakke decision, when the majority said universities may take race into account in admissions. However, challenges to the University of Michigan’s preferential policies could reach the high court during the current term. In those cases, a federal judge in Detroit struck down the admissions policy of the University of Michigan law school, saying the criteria were not clearly defined and relied too heavily on race. A separate court ruling upheld Michigan’s undergraduate admissions standards.
Attorney Steve W. Smith, who represents two of the Hopwood plaintiffs, said he had hoped the Supreme Court would settle the issue.
“That didn’t happen, so that would be a disappointment,” Smith says. But he said the case “began to raise the question of, if not affirmative action, what?”
The Hopwood plaintiffs had argued they were denied enrollment because the law school favored less-qualified minority applicants. While parts of their argument were rejected, a federal judge found the university had an unconstitutional admissions policy.
“I think somebody had to stop the university from using race in admissions. I’m glad I had some very small role to play in that,” said one of the plaintiffs, David Rogers, 37, after last month’s announcement by the university. “It’s not appropriate for government to classify citizens based on skin color.”
After the Hopwood ruling, public universities in Texas dropped affirmative action programs and later blamed the move for a drop in minority enrollment. Since 1996, Texas has operated under a state attorney general’s opinion saying race cannot be used in admissions, financial aid decisions and scholarships.
However, universities have recently been able to boost minority enrollment through laws that grant automatic admission to the top 10 percent of high school graduates.
University of Texas system Chancellor R.D. Burck says “closing the books on this case brings to an end a protracted and difficult legal battle, but our commitment to an expansion of educational opportunity for all Texans remains unchanged.”
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