Metro

Area colleges defend affirmative action practices

Abigail Fisher, who challenged the use of race in college admissions, was joined by lawyer Edward Blum (right) as spoke to reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington.
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
Abigail Fisher, who challenged the use of race in college admissions, was joined by lawyer Edward Blum (right) as spoke to reporters outside the Supreme Court in Washington.

Boston-area universities are closely watching a Supreme Court case that could derail the use of race in admissions, a practice that several universities, including Harvard and MIT, say is fundamental to creating a diverse student body.

If the high court rules that it is unconstitutional for public colleges to consider race as a factor in admissions, it could have the biggest impact on the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the state’s flagship public college, which is trying to create a more diverse campus even as it becomes more selective and uses race as a factor in admissions decisions.

But legal scholars say a broad ruling by the court could also force private colleges to stop using race, even though they are not generally subject to constitutional rulings.

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The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a student who says the University of Texas rejected her because she is white. Oral arguments this month reflected the charged debate over affirmative action, with conservative justices sharply questioning its place in higher education

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Harvard, MIT, and Yale are among the private colleges that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of using race as a factor in admissions.

“It would be wholly antithetical . . . to ignore a facet of an applicant’s identity that may, to that individual, play an essential role in shaping his or her narrative and experience,” says a brief filed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and 12 other elite colleges, including Brown and Dartmouth.

The Fisher case is making headlines at a time when racial tensions have roiled college campuses across the country, and many students say their concerns about diversity and discrimination deserve more attention.

Several Boston-area schools said they use an array of factors to attain a more heterogeneous class.

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They recruit from a diverse group of high schools and consider applicants’ socioeconomic background, among other strategies.

“Not necessarily any one criterion is being used to shape or attain any goal,” said Sundar Kumarasamy, vice president for enrollment management at Northeastern University.

Tufts University and Boston University officials said they think race is an important factor but they don’t believe a ruling against its use will undermine their ability to field a diverse student body.

“We believe strongly . . . that the future viability of higher education will hinge on recognizing and dealing with the challenges and opportunities of accessibility, diversity, and inclusion,” said Tufts spokeswoman Kim Thurler.

In its friend-of-the-court brief, Harvard argued that the benefits of a diverse student body are “more important now than ever.”

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“Universities play a unique role in helping to bridge the divides that threaten to prevent the nation from achieving its highest democratic ideals,” said the Harvard brief, written by university general counsel Robert W. Iuliano and other attorneys.

‘Universities play a unique role in helping to bridge divides.’

Robert W. Iuliano, Harvard University general counsel 

UMass Amherst looks for students who come from low-income families, who are the first in their family to attend college, or who are from underrepresented ethnic groups, said Jim Roche, associate provost for enrollment management.

“We also try to determine if the student is likely to contribute to and benefit from the critical thinking and diversity of ideas that are so important to the mission of a public research university,” Roche said.

Although private colleges would not be subject to a constitutional ruling on this debate, many legal scholars believe they would be subject to whatever broad message the court sends because the schools receive federal funding and are therefore bound by federal antidiscrimination laws.

Regardless, a strong ruling one way or the other would create a “powerful atmospheric and cultural impact” on private schools, said Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Tribe.

“Then the impact on privates would be indirect but massive,” Tribe said, but he explained that a ruling striking down race-based affirmative action is unlikely.

Another legal analyst said a ruling against affirmative action would be a “body blow” to the many recent efforts to increase diversity.

“The events of the past two or three years have made it clear that we have to be proactive about addressing equal opportunity and addressing racial attitudes,” said Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge and senior lecturer at Harvard Law School.

While on the bench in 2003, Gertner ruled that a race-based school integration plan in Lynn public schools was constitutional and necessary to foster diversity, a decision ultimately upheld by an appeals court.

Gertner said the real question is whether, practically speaking, a Supreme Court blow to affirmative action could derail modern higher education’s commitment to diversity.

“The question only becomes whether people do it directly or indirectly,” she said.

The Fisher case is closely linked with a separate legal challenge playing out at Harvard, which has been accused of admissions policies that discriminate against Asian-Americans.

Both the Fisher case and the one at Harvard were orchestrated by Edward Blum, an affirmative action opponent backed by conservative donors.

The Harvard case is essentially on hold, Blum said, until the Supreme Court rules, probably by June.

“Once the world is told the if, when, and how race-based affirmative action is permitted, or implemented, then we’ll all go back to court,” he said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.