Race-Concious Admissions Policies Benefit Students and the Workforce, According to Social Scientists

San Francisco (Aug. 13, 2012) – A group of social scientists today filed a legal brief with the U.S. Supreme Court with research offering a deeper understanding of how a diverse educational environment benefits White students as well as students of color, and why diversity benefits society as a whole, even more than previously understood.

The brief cites studies, provided to the Supreme Court for the first time, showing that race-conscious admissions policies like that used by the University of Texas at Austin result in a more diverse student body, which is essential to produce leaders able to compete in the 21st century global marketplace. The brief also explains how structural barriers inhibit educational opportunity.

The Equal Justice Society, the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and the Haas Diversity Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote the amicus (“friend of the court”) brief on behalf of 13 of the nation’s leading social scientists in the case of Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Victoria Plaut, Professor of Law and Social Science at the University of California, Berkeley, led the coordination of social scientists, and Dr. Plaut and students from the Berkeley Law Culture, Diversity & Intergroup Relations Lab helped compile the research for the brief. Nicole Arlette Hirsch, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University, also assisted with the brief.

The brief provides examples of the most recent social science research, offering a deeper understanding of why diversity is even more crucial to academic achievement and civic engagement than previously understood. Research presented for the first time to the Supreme Court shows how diversity improves academic performance, reduces prejudice, lowers stress and psychological barriers, and has broad positive effects on workforce development.

This is not the first time a brief has employed social science in a Supreme Court case. In its historic Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling, the Supreme Court relied on data presented by more than 30 social scientists affirming the harmful effects of segregation on Blacks and Whites, offered through the arguments and brief from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The Court also considered social science findings in its Grutter v. Bollinger decision upholding the equal opportunity admissions of the University of Michigan Law School.

Social Science, Better Students, and American Achievement

Among the research demonstrating how diversity improves workforce development, one study shows that diversity leads to innovation because groups collaborate more when they recognize that alternative perspectives exist, leading to novel insights and solutions. This was among the findings in a study led by Dr. Katherine W. Phillips, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. The inclusion of diverse viewpoints in decision-making leads to creativity and efficiency in how group members work together.

Another study reveals that when people of color are part of a multiracial group, it can lead to divergent thinking, more creativity, and more accurate judgments. Diverse environments can also lead White individuals to “exhibit more thorough information processing,” found a study led by Dr. Samuel R. Sommers, Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University.

Research by Dr. Patricia Gurin at the University of Michigan concludes that extensive and meaningful interracial interaction enhances education outcomes. Her study showed higher levels of intellectual engagement and academic skills for White, Black, Latino, and Asian students, based on data collected from more than 11,000 students across 184 institutions.

The brief also cites an analysis of more than 200 studies revealing that continued contact with people from other ethnic backgrounds reduces prejudice. The analysis by Dr. Thomas F. Pettigrew and Dr. Linda R. Tropp indicates that interracial interactions over time reduce anxiety and other negative emotional responses.

UT’s Admissions Policy Meets Supreme Court’s ‘Narrowly Tailored’ Criteria

In its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Supreme Court recognized that promoting diversity in higher education is a “compelling governmental interest.” In Grutter, the Court required that race-conscious admissions policies be “narrowly tailored.”

UT’s holistic admissions policy is narrowly designed to consider race as only one of many factors when evaluating a student’s personal and life experiences, preserving individual assessment. But by including race, the policy accounts for circumstances in Texas resulting in structural barriers, racial residential segregation, and disparate educational opportunities for many Texas students.

Fisher’s Road to the Supreme Court

The Fisher case was brought by a White student who challenges her denial of admission to UT in 2008 under an admissions policy that considers many different criteria, including: leadership qualities, extracurricular activities, awards, work experience, community service, family and school socio-economic status, and race. UT’s policy takes into consideration the race environment background of any applicant, including a White student, based on his or her unique life experience.

After Fisher filed her lawsuit in 2008, a federal judge ruled against her in 2009. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit last year unanimously ruled against Fisher and upheld the constitutionality of UT’s admissions policy, saying it is consistent with the Supreme Court’s Grutter decision that diversity is a compelling interest for public universities and that race can be used as a factor in admissions. Fisher appealed to the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments in October 2012.

By challenging UT’s admissions policy, the Fisher case attacks the Supreme Court’s bedrock constitutional holding that the educational benefits of a diverse student body are a compelling interest that colleges and universities may pursue through narrowly tailored, equal opportunity policies.

The brief was submitted by legal counsel Eva Paterson, Allison S. Elgart and Fabián Rentería of the Equal Justice Society; a team of attorneys from Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati that includes David Berger, Elizabeth Saunders, Lisa Davis, Ro Khanna, and Savith Iyengar; and john a. powell and Stephen Menendian of the Haas Diversity Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.