The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the practice of considering race in college admissions, rejecting a white woman's challenge to a University of Texas affirmative action program designed to boost the enrollment of minority students.
The court, in a 4-3 ruling written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, decided in favor of the university in turning aside the conservative challenge to the policy, meaning a 2014 appeals court ruling that backed the admissions program was left intact.
The Supreme Court was weighing for the second time a challenge to the admissions system used by the University of Texas at Austin brought by Abigail Fisher, who was denied entry to the school for the autumn of 2008.
Affirmative acion is a policy under which racial minorities historically subject to discrimination are given certain preferences in education and employment.
Fisher said the university denied her admission in favor of lesser-qualified black and Hispanic applicants. She maintained that the program violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law.
Kennedy said that "considerable deference" is owed to universities when they are seeking to determine student diversity. He said that "it remains an enduring challenge to our nation's education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity."
But in the Texas case, the challengers had failed to show that the university could have met its needs via another process, he said. Kennedy noted that the university "tried and failed to increase diversity" through other race-neutral means.
The university has disputed whether Fisher would have gained admission under any circumstances. University officials contend that having a sizable number of minorities enrolled exposes students to varied perspectives and enhances the educational experience for all students.
The high court upheld a July 2014 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the university. That court endorsed the school's "limited use of race in its search for holistic diversity."
President Barack Obama's administration backed the university in the dispute.
The university admits most freshmen through a program that guarantees admission to students in the top 10 percent of their Texas high school graduating classes. It uses other factors including race to admit the remainder. Fisher was not in the top 10 percent of her high school class.
The high court had considered Fisher's case once before. In June 2013, it did not directly rule on the program's constitutionality but ordered the appeals court to scrutinize it more closely.
Writing in dissent, Justice Samuel Alito contended that the court's majority had turned its back on principles from the first Fisher ruling, which he said required judges to give more scrutiny to racial admissions and defer less to university officials, and he opened his dissent remarking, "Something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case."
"Here, UT (the University of Texas) has failed to define its interest in using racial preferences with clarity. As a result, the narrow tailoring inquiry is impossible, and UT cannot satisfy strict scrutiny," Alito added.
Alito added that while the university's stated goals are laudable, "they are not concrete or precise, and they offer no limiting principle for the use of racial preferences. For instance, how will a court ever be able to determine whether stereotypes have adequately been destroyed? Or whether cross-racial understanding has been adequately achieved?"
While the university's program has resulted in a measure of racial and ethnic diversity, the percentage of black and Hispanic students on campus still remains lower than in the state's overall population.
Fisher, now 26, graduated from her second choice college, Louisiana State University, and now works as a financial analyst in Austin. Fisher said she has stayed in the case to help others in similar positions.
"I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has ruled that students applying to the University of Texas can be treated differently because of their race or ethnicity. I hope that the nation will one day move beyond affirmative action," Fisher said in a statement.
Edward Blum, a conservative activist who engineered Fisher's challenge, said that racial classifications and preferences are among the most polarizing policies in America today.
"As long as universities like the University of Texas continue to treat applicants differently by race and ethnicity, the social fabric that holds us together as a nation will be weakened. Today's decision is a sad step backward for the original, colorblind principles to our civil rights laws," added Blum, the president of the conservative Project on Fair Representation.