Legal brief from Stanford, other universities to be considered in affirmative action case

Stanford and 13 other private universities have submitted an amicus brief as part of the Supreme Court's consideration of a high-profile university admissions case.

As the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court weigh arguments in the closely watched University of Texas affirmative action case, they will consider a "friend of the court" brief filed by Stanford and 13 other universities.

The universities are urging the court to continue to allow educational institutions to take account of race and ethnicity as one part of the holistic, individualized review of student applications for admission.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in the case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, and will issue a ruling in the coming months. Plaintiffs in the case are challenging the use of race-conscious admission policies at UT Austin.

"The universities joining in this amicus brief felt it was important to weigh in on this matter of national importance," said Debra Zumwalt, Stanford vice president and general counsel. "The brief asks the court to reaffirm its 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger that diversity in higher education is a compelling government interest – and to continue to allow educational institutions to structure admissions programs that take account of race and ethnicity as single factors within a highly individualized, holistic review process."

The institutions joining Stanford in the amicus brief, filed late this summer, are Brown, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Penn, Princeton, Vanderbilt and Yale.

All of the universities joining the brief have highly selective admission criteria designed to ensure that admitted students are prepared for the rigors of university coursework. However, the brief says, purely numerical criteria such as grade-point averages and test scores are not sufficient for accomplishing the universities' full educational missions, and thus the universities examine all aspects of individual applicants.

"A diverse student body adds significantly to the rigor and depth of students' educational experience," the brief says. "Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the spectacular complexity of the modern world. This larger understanding prepares [our] graduates to be active and engaged citizens wrestling with the pressing challenges of the day, to pursue innovation in every field of discovery, and to expand humanity's learning and accomplishment."

The brief also notes that the changes in law sought by plaintiffs in the Fisher case could invite litigation from rejected applicants and judicial intrusion into university admissions. Selective universities must reject large numbers of applicants, and the institutions' individualized, holistic review processes necessarily include many non-quantifiable aspects, the brief says.

"Over many years we have had great success in the consideration of multiple criteria in the review of candidates applying to Stanford," said Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid. "Indeed, we consider applicants from all backgrounds and celebrate the many perspectives our admitted students will bring to our learning and living environment. Our holistic approach to the review of candidates allows us to consider a myriad of academic and personal characteristics that leads to the enrollment of exceptional classes highly representative of the world in which we live."

While the Fisher case focuses on the admission practices of a public university, the brief notes that private universities could be affected by the decision because Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits institutions receiving federal funds from engaging in racial "discrimination."

The full text of the amicus brief and a transcript of the argument in the Supreme Court are available on the website of Stanford's Office of the General Counsel.