North Carolina admissions lawsuit win upholds affirmative action

Federal court decision continues series of losses for conservative activist group

October 19, 2021

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has prevailed in an affirmative action lawsuit, demonstrating to a federal judge that its admissions process does not discriminate against white and ethnic Asian applicants.

UNC uses race in its admissions process in a narrowly tailored manner as required by US Supreme Court rulings, US district judge Loretta Biggs said in ending a lawsuit nearly a year after trial began in the case.

The decision in favour of UNC continues a series of losses for the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative activist group that has been fighting affirmative action in US higher education.

It comes two years after Harvard University won a high-profile court case defending its admissions practices against similar claims that affirmative action practices unfairly harm white and ethnic Asian students.

The final outcomes of both cases, however, remain unclear while awaiting considerations by the current US Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority that has shown a willingness to overturn established precedents.

The top court’s existing standard on affirmative action in college admissions was established in a 2003 ruling involving the University of Michigan. The Supreme Court made clear then that institutions could pursue a racially diverse student body as long as each applicant for admission was judged on a variety of factors.

UNC, in a statement on its court victory, said that it carefully follows that formula. “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,” a spokeswoman said.

The lawsuit was filed against UNC in 2014, and the decision comes as the institution faces widespread concern that the campus – which admitted its first black student in 1955 – is still not doing enough to promote racial understanding.

A key moment came this summer when the UNC board of trustees gave only a belated and apparently grudging approval of tenure for Pulitzer prizewinning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Ms Hannah-Jones and her supporters had expected tenure as part of her hiring to teach about race and investigative journalism at UNC, and she responded to the snub by taking an alternative job offer from Howard University.

Under pressure, the UNC board is now considering changes that would alter its role in such personnel matters.

Data produced for the affirmative action lawsuit showed that white students accounted for 56 per cent of UNC’s freshman class in 2019. Asian American students represented 12 per cent, while black and Hispanic students totalled about 9 per cent each.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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