WILLIAM POWERS is the president of the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin). Lino Graglia holds an endowed chair at its law school. Both have kindly demeanours, impressive records and that crucial perk of academic success, offices with great views: Mr Powers looks out over the heart of the university’s campus, Mr Graglia at its football stadium.
They also hold strong and opposing opinions on whether admissions to their state-run university ought to take account of race. Mr Powers believes that using “race as one factor in an overall holistic view of the candidate” helps the university build a diverse campus, an achievement which has “an educational value for all of our students”. Mr Graglia thinks “lower[ing] standards to admit members of preferred groups” is “a bad idea”.
America has a number of policies and practices designed to increase the presence of minorities in various areas of life from which they have historically been excluded. But the role of such affirmative action in university admissions has garnered the most attention. Schools and universities provided many of America’s desegregation battlegrounds. And gaining entry to America’s elite universities is difficult; the perception, right or wrong, that race can in some circumstances trump merit strikes many as unjust, not least because universities play a large role in social mobility.
The Supreme Court is about to weigh in on the matter. In March it agreed to hear a case that could determine whether a state may ban affirmative action in university admissions on the basis of a referendum. In 2006 a majority of Michigan’s voters approved such a measure, but last November a federal appellate court ruled that the measure violates the equal-protection clause of the constitution, which requires states to treat all citizens equally, by preventing affirmative-action supporters from pressing their case to individual universities. And the court will soon rule on a suit brought against UT-Austin by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was not admitted to the university