Admissions Leaders Weigh Post-‘Fisher’ Questions

New YorkNeither a victory nor a defeat. That’s how supporters of race-conscious admissions policies have described the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas. At the College Board’s annual conference here this week, admissions officials have discussed that ambiguity.

During a session on Fisher, an audience of more than 200 people participated in an on-the-spot survey. Using electronic clickers, they chose responses to statements that appeared on a screen. First, they were asked to complete this sentence: “I think Fisher was …”

“A victory for civil rights and diversity,” said 22 percent. “A dud,” said 19 percent. Yet most—59 percent—chose this answer: “Ask me again in a year—or 10.”

For now, there’s much concern about what the Supreme Court’s ruling said about race-neutral strategies for achieving campus diversity. Are colleges now required to experiment with them?

No, according to Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Before using a race-conscious admissions policy, she said, colleges “do not have to first try race-neutral alternatives and see them fail.” Nonetheless, she said, institutions must carefully consider existing alternatives—and be able to demonstrate that they’ve done so.

Arthur L. Coleman, managing partner at EducationCounsel, a consulting firm, agreed with Ms. Lhamon that Fisher had not changed the legal standards the Supreme Court affirmed in Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case that upheld the use of race as one of several factors in admissions. But, he said, “there’s a difference in tone and tenor in this case—you can just feel the difference.”

Mr. Coleman urged college officials to consider a key question as they evaluate each aspect of their admissions policies: “Is race even necessary?” To answer that, he said, an institution must consider its mission, its goals, and, perhaps most important, the effectiveness of its strategies for meeting those goals. A well-meaning policy that has failed to achieve the desired impact on a campus probably isn’t a good policy.

Amid all the fretting over how courts may or may not rule, it’s easy to think of campus-diversity policies in purely legalistic terms. That’s a mistake, Douglas L. Christiansen, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions at Vanderbilt University, told the audience.

Colleges must expand their access programs, Mr. Christiansen said, to create a more-robust pool of diverse applicants for all institutions to draw on. In other words, more and more marketing to prospective applicants who are already qualified for admission won’t expand the national pipeline of students.

If colleges see their diversity initiatives merely as a means of competing with other institutions or of complying with the law, Mr. Christiansen said, “I think we all lose.”

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