On its surface, the case of Abigail Noel Fisher v. University of Texas revolves around whether the school’s consideration of race in admissions led to the rejection of a white student.
But as the case nears the Supreme Court’s fall docket, it is also stirring a debate about the impact of affirmative action policies on Asian-American students and casting a spotlight on the stereotype of Asian-Americans as “the model minority.”
On one side, Fisher and her supporters, including the 80-20 National Asian American Educational Foundation, argue that the race-conscious admissions policies discriminate against qualified Asian-American students in favor of less-qualified African-American and Latino students.
On the other side, a coalition of more than 100 Asian-American groups has filed briefs backing the UT-Austin policy, saying it benefits Asian-American students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“UT’s process of individualized review advances its compelling interest in achieving the educational benefits of student diversity, increases the likelihood of admission for those who do not have the same social mobility and capital as others, and has the potential to benefit all Asian-American and Pacific Islander applicants,” a brief filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) states.
In its brief, AALDEF says the arguments by Fisher and her supporters propagate the “model minority myth” that portrays Asian-Americans as a monolith of affluent overachievers and “fails to capture the complex reality of their experience.”
The Supreme Court case stems from a 2008 lawsuit in which Fisher, then a Sugar Land high school senior in the top 12 percent of her class, claimed she was rejected under a UT policy that includes race as a factor in choosing students who fall short of the top 10 percent.
Fisher’s lawsuit argues that the UT policy is unconstitutional and violates the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger ruling, which allows colleges and universities to use race-based admissions criteria only after race-neutral alternatives have failed to achieve a diverse student body.
After Grutter v. Bollinger, UT-Austin created a “holistic” criteria, which includes factors such as community service, leadership, personal hardship, family background and race, to consider students not in the top 10 percent.
A brief filed by Fisher maintains that Asian-Americans and whites are harmed by the race-conscious admissions policy, while a brief filed by 80-20 and three Indian-American organizations goes further – likening the UT policy to past attempts to bar Jews from attending elite colleges.
“Just as schools today devise various mechanisms to increase some racial group representation at the expense of Asian-American students, schools in the last century were not above manipulating their methods to achieve a desired demographic result reflecting fewer Jews,” argues the brief.
S.B. Woo, 80-20 president and former lieutenant governor of Delaware, brushes aside the contention that race-conscious admissions policies could help some Asian-American students.
“If the policy is upheld, the United States of America will have legalized discrimination of Asian-American students,” he said.
However, Asian-American supporters of the UT policy point out that the bulk of students admitted under the holistic criteria are Asian-Americans and whites.
In 2011, 60 percent of incoming freshmen admitted based on the holistic criteria rather than the top 10 percent rule were white and 16 percent were Asian-American.
By comparison, 10 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were African American, according to UT enrollment statistics.
“It seems to me that the system works,” said Madeline Y. Hsu, director of the Center for Asian American Studies at UT-Austin.