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Racial Preference in Austin
The University of Texas goes to great lengths to disguise the role of race in admissions.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

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From a careful reading of the convoluted brief that the University of Texas filed this week in Fisher v. University of Texas, one thing is clear: The university spent a fortune building a byzantine admissions edifice whose purpose is to disguise how, and how much, the “holistic review” process that it uses in making decisions about which students to admit is race-based.

The Supreme Court will hear the case in October. Abigail Fisher, a white student, says that she was denied admission to UT’s undergraduate program because of her race. As Peter Schmidt points out in The Chronicle of Higher Education, UT in its brief marshals arguments “that explicitly seek to win over Justice Anthony M. Kennedy,” who by virtue of being the Court’s swing vote on most matters racial has become in effect the national Dean of Admissions for schools seeking to preserve race preferences.

Consider, for example, the lengths, or depths, to which UT has gone to bury its consideration of race in the admissions process. Applicants whose grades put them in the top 10 percent of their high-school graduating class are automatically admitted. For other applicants, the measure of their qualifications is a combination of their Academic Index (AI) score, which reflects grades and test scores, and Personal Achievement Index (PAI) score, which is where the process goes subterranean. According to the brief,

an applicant’s PAI score is based on two essays and a Personal Achievement Score (PAS). Essays are reviewed by specially trained readers, and are scored on a race-blind basis from 1 to 6. The PAS score ranges from 1 to 6 as well, and is based on holistic consideration of six equally-weighted factors: leadership potential, extracurricular activities, honors and awards, work experience, community service, and special circumstances. The “special circumstances” factor is broken down into seven attributes, including socioeconomic considerations, and — as of 2005 — an applicant’s race. Race is one of seven components of a single factor in the PAS score, which comprises one third of the PAI, which is one of two numerical values (PAI and AI) that places a student on the admissions grid, from which students are admitted race-blind in groups. In other words, race is “a factor of a factor of a factor of a factor” in UT’s holistic review.

No automatic advantage or value is assigned to race or any other PAS factor. Each applicant is considered as a whole person, and race is considered “in conjunction with an applicant’s demonstrated sense of cultural awareness,” not in isolation. 

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Take that, Justice Kennedy! We dare you to strictly scrutinize the use of race in what Texas boasts is this “holistic and modest way in which race is considered.” Indeed, Texas goes so far as to claim that “it is impossible to tell whether an applicant’s race was a tipping factor for any given admit.” If Texas itself doesn’t know how much weight it gives race (that’s a big “if”), how can any judge say it gave race too much weight? Nor does the brief explain how admissions officials determine whether applicants have demonstrated a “sense of cultural awareness.”

And yet — holy holistic! — year after year this “factor of a factor of a factor of a factor” always produces a substantial number of minority applicants who presumably would not have been admitted but for their race or ethnicity. Even more mysterious, despite all the ink that this octopus of an admissions office has squirted over its Rube Goldberg process, it emerges that Texas somehow does know how heavy its thumb is on the racial scale. Otherwise, how could it confidently assert that of “the 728 African-Americans offered admission to the 2008 class, 146 — or 20% — were admitted through full-file review” (that is, outside the top–10 percent policy)? Or that the figure for Hispanic applicants was 15 percent?

If most, or even many, of the minority students admitted outside the top–10 percent policy — who constitute 20 percent of black and 15 percent of Hispanic admittances — would have been admitted without considering their race or ethnicity, why did Texas spend so much money creating and defending this intricate charade? Texas, in short, attempts to walk a tightrope, precariously balanced between two conflicting arguments — that considering race is essential to producing “diversity” and that the admissions office, though it can’t be sure how much it considers race, knows that it doesn’t consider race very much.

With Justice Kennedy’s dissent in Grutter clearly in mind, the Texas brief insists repeatedly (I count about 15 times) that its system for assessing applicants falls outside Kennedy’s definition of unacceptably race-based admissions policies, noting at one point that “UT’s policy lacks the features that Justice Kennedy found disqualifying in Grutter: it is undisputed that UT has not established any race-based target; race is not assigned any automatic value; and the racial or ethnic composition of admits is not monitored during the admissions cycle.”



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