In a show of support for race-conscious admissions and as a defense of its current admissions policies, the College has put its name on a brief in a case under consideration by the United States Supreme Court that could potentially put an end to so-called “affirmative action.”
The case at hand, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, involves a white student, Abigail Fisher, who claims that the University’s race-conscious admissions policies violate her 14th Amendment rights to “equal protection of the laws.”
The College joined its NESCAC partners and numerous other institutions of higher learning in drafting an amicus brief — or ‘friend of the court’ brief — that was considered as part of this case, which was heard last month in Washington, D.C.
The contentious issue of affirmative action has returned to the nation’s highest court less than a decade after the 2003 landmark decision Grutter v. Bollinger, in which the Supreme Court upheld a 1978 decision that defined racial diversity as a “compelling interest” and that, while outlawing specifics quotas for racial minorities, has allowed colleges and universities to supplement the review of prospective students’ applications with information about their race.
“[Race] is a special form of classification and therefore unlike football players or viola players or even sons and daughters of big donors, this raises a constitutional legal red flag the way the others don’t,” said Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Murray Dry, a scholar of constitutional law, addressing the unique protection the court has offered to this characteristic. “The use of race as a classification is just short of a categorical no-no.”
Dry added that the impact of the decision in the Fisher case will depend on the focus of the court’s deliberations. A narrow ruling would limit the scope of the verdict to Fisher’s particular experience and UT Austin’s specific admission polices, whereas a broader judgment could overturn Grutter’s permissive standard. Not only would public institutions of higher learning be prevented from considering race in admissions, but the prohibition would also affect private schools that accept federal funding.
“Many people assume that because we’re a private college that [the case] might not have an impact,” said Dean of Admissions Greg Buckles. “But in fact we’re paying close attention to it as well.”
The College’s interest and auxiliary role in the Fisher case stems in part from its commitment to “actively recruit and admit students of color to Middlebury,” outlined in the College’s 2006 Strategic Plan, approved by the Board of Trustees.
The amicus brief the College signed argues that this commitment has brought “myriad benefits” to the College.
“Middlebury has submitted a lot of information to the attorneys in building the brief showing … the [impact on] the kinds of programs that come up on campus, the way conversations shift in a classroom environment,” said Dean of the College Shirley Collado of affirmative action.
“We wouldn’t be talking about faculty diversity and curricular diversity if we were as homogenous racially as we were even 15 years ago.”
According to Buckles, the standards of prospective students provide significant impetus for actively increasing racial diversity, a point echoed by Collado.
“White students coming to Middlebury are wanting and asking for different things and wanting a diverse environment because they know that’s just better for their learning,” said Collado.
Though Buckles describes the process of reviewing applications as a holistic consideration of all aspects of a student’s file, some students contest that race is singled out in the application process.
“If you’re looking to go on to higher education, you want to be looked at as ‘this is what I’ve achieved academically or outside the classroom,” said Dunja Jovicic ’13. “Forcing our diversity isn’t the ideal way to diversify campus.”
Jovicic suggested that more “deep rooted problems,” such as deficiencies in primary schools, should be considered when trying to address under-representation of certain racial minorities in higher education.
Collado pointed to some of the same issues in her justification of affirmative action policies.
“We cannot deny the fact that there are still huge inequities in K-12 education … and that if we were to pull out race we would be completely ignoring how the pathways to Middlebury are absolutely still narrow and have huge barriers for people of color in this country,” said Collado, adding that the College’s history as an “elite, historically predominantly white” institution should also be taken into account.
For Jovivic, who said she sees affirmative action as only a “Band-Aid” for those more entrenched problems, a “top-down” approach — where racial inequalities are addressed in admissions offices — is not the correct strategy.
Her criticisms of race-conscious admissions join those expressed in amicus briefs filed on behalf of Fisher. These views include arguments outlining the decreased chance of admission or success in post-graduate education for minority students who are in the lower percentiles of undergraduate classes, the lack of positive correlation between increasing numbers of minority students and increasing academic grades and the criticism of using “critical mass” as a benchmark for ensuring adequate minority enrollment.
Outlined in the Grutter case, “critical mass” addresses the need some schools have seen to “ensure that…minority students do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race” through the preferential admission of substantial numbers students of color.
“The tendency is that when there are few students of color on a campus, let’s say at Middlebury, we tend to get pigeonholed into one narrative and one experience,” said Aya Gallego ’13, a self-identified student of color. “Bringing in larger numbers of students of color will inherently diversify the population even among students of color.”
Critics of the “critical mass” standard highlight the lack of quantitative boundaries that leaves the definition of the term to individual colleges and universities. Gallego argued that increasing racial diversity would benefit the College.
“I think that having a larger quantity of students of color would at least provide more opportunities for encounters between students of different backgrounds,” Gallego said.
Both Buckles and Dry agree that it is unlikely the court will overturn the Grutter case, leaving Middlebury to continue its current admissions practices.
“One of the real hallmarks of Middlebury’s growth and the success of this institution has been the increase in accessibility and diversity that we have had,” said Buckles. “[It] doesn’t mean we’re finished, it doesn’t mean it’s enough, but it goes back to the question, ‘what is enough?’”