University of North Carolina did not discriminate in admissions, judge rules

SFFA's claims of favoring students of color are denied, but it will appeal and has another case pending against Harvard.
By: | October 19, 2021
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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did not discriminate against Asian or white applicants in its undergraduate admissions process, a federal judge ruled on Monday, continuing a pattern of court decisions backing institutions that use holistic approaches and consider race in their decision-making.

U.S. District Court judge Loretta Biggs denied claims from the group Students for Fair Admission that UNC’s practices unfairly gave students of color an edge in entry, thus violating the U.S. Constitution and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. SFFA made a similar claim against Harvard University and lost, but it has appealed and that could end up before the Supreme Court.

Alluding to several benchmark decisions including Harvard’s case, Biggs wrote in the 161-page findings on UNC that: “Based on the voluminous evidence, the University’s admissions program bears all the hallmarks of a narrowly tailored race-conscious admissions program: it engages a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file, which considers race flexibly as a ‘plus factor’ as one among many factors in its individualized consideration of each and every applicant, without insulating the individual from competition with all other candidates for available seats.

“At no time in the admissions process are candidates considered in separate groups according to their race nor is a candidate insulated from comparison with all other applicants.”

Beth Keith, Associate Vice Chancellor of University Communities at UNC, lauded the ruling.

“This decision makes clear that the university’s holistic admissions approach is lawful,” she said. “We evaluate each student in a deliberate and thoughtful way, appreciating individual strengths, talents and contributions to a vibrant campus community where students from all backgrounds can excel and thrive.”

Despite the historic precedence of courts to side for institutions in affirmative action cases—Medical School/UC-Davis Regents of University of California v. Bakke  (1978); Fisher v. University of Texas (2013, 2016); and Michigan’s College of Literature Science and the Arts, Gratz and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)— it is unclear how the majority conservative Supreme Court would see the evidence if presented the Harvard case. The Biden Administration is being asked to weigh in on its merits before it is considered by the high court. In February, the Justice Department dropped a lawsuit against Yale University over its admissions policies, but the SFFA is suing Yale, too.

However, Biggs made very clear how one-sided UNC’s case was against SFFA.

In her ruling, she noted that potential applicants at North Carolina are not given “automatic points” based on their race, nor are there any opaque procedures implemented that might show bias toward one group or another. She said simply, race is not “a predominant factor” but one of many utilized during the process. She also said that UNC is well-aware of its considerations of race during the admissions cycle and its potential to affect outcomes.

Though UNC and others might use projections of an incoming class, Biggs noted that in and of itself does not mean that UNC has engaged in unfair practices or in any way used reports to sway favor to certain ethnic groups.

The court leaned on previous rulings such as Grutter vs. Michigan, which showed that “admissions programs which consider race are narrowly tailored when they flexibly are a part of an individualized holistic review of each applicant. There must be a close ‘fit’ between the university’s consideration of race and its ‘compelling goal’ of diversity, so that there is ‘little or no possibility . . . [for] illegitimate racial prejudice or stereotype.”

Burden of proof met

Biggs found that UNC met that burden and “made a serious good-faith effort to consider race-neutral alternatives.” She noted North Carolina’s own mission statement in her decision, which says its goals are “to serve as the center of research, scholarship, and creativity and to teach a diverse community of undergraduate, graduate, and professional students to become the next generation of leaders.”

To that end, UNC has undertaken a number of measures to show the benefits of diversity through faculty council statements and academic plans while being fair through its admission process, according to Biggs. That includes offering quantitative and qualitative research, conducting a thorough diversity assessment and “promoting the robust exchange of ideas… and breaking down stereotypes.”

Despite the ruling, the nonprofit Students for Fair Admission and its anti-affirmative action leader Edward Blum plan to appeal the case. The SFFA believes that “racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional. A student’s race and ethnicity should not be factors that either harm or help that student to gain admission to a competitive university.” And it cites a Pew Research Center survey on its website that shows more than 70% of U.S. citizens agree.

But the Center for American Progress notes that should a ban on holistic admissions be imposed by the courts, entry for students of color to highly selective universities would drop by more than 20%. Those universities have struggled to boost enrollments of Black, Hispanic and Native American students, who remain underrepresented. Even after completion, White students tend to do better than students of color in terms of earnings and leadership positions. Without those policies that include race as part of the overall consideration, it could have a further societal impact in terms of mobility and power.