Wednesday, December 9, 2015
by Risa E. Kaufman, Executive Director, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, and lecturer-in-law, Columbia Law School
Is human rights law relevant to the Court’s consideration of UT Austin’s admissions selection policy? In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, the Court has the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of ensuring diversity and inclusion in higher education. Such a decision would be supported by international law: equal opportunity college admissions policies help the U.S. to fulfill its human rights commitments.
At issue in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin is the university’s admissions policy, which considers race among many other factors as a means of ensuring a diverse and academically qualified student body. UT Austin’s admissions policy has two components. Most students (75%) are admitted through the school’s “Top Ten Percent plan,” which guarantees admission for Texas students in the top ten percent of their high school class. The school fills the remaining slots through a holistic multi-factor review of each applicant, considering over a dozen factors, one of which is race.
This is the second time the Court has heard arguments in Fisher. The case has a well-told procedural backstory.
Directly at issue in Fisher is UT Austin’s admission policy. But the ruling could have wider implications on the ability of colleges and universities to maintain policies that seek to ensure equal opportunity and racial diversity. As the New York Times noted last week, recent activism on college campuses has amplified the conversation around race and higher education, and the stakes in Fisher feel particularly high.
What does human rights add to the mix? As noted by Human Rights Advocates and other organizations joining an international human rights amicus brief filed in Fisher, UT Austin’s admissions plan helps the United States meet its human rights commitments. And it is in line with international practice. The brief was authored by Connie de la Vega at University of San Francisco School of Law, along with Neil Popović at Sheppard Mullin.
As the human rights amicus brief notes, two of the core human rights treaties ratified by the United States support the use of holistic considerations of race in higher education admissions decisions. In particular, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), ratified by the U.S. in 1994, calls on countries to take affirmative steps to eliminate and prevent racially discriminatory practices. Article 2(2) of the Convention calls on countries to take “special and concrete measures” to guarantee and advance equality. The CERD Committee has elaborated on the meaning and scope of “special measures,” and in reviewing countries’ compliance with CERD, the Committee has emphasized their particular importance in the field of education. During the most recent review of U.S. compliance with the CERD, in 2014, the CERD Committee noted concern with policies and practices within the United States that have been adopted against the use of special measures in higher education, and recommended that the U.S. instead adopt and strengthen the use of such measures to eliminate persistent disparities.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), too, supports the use of holistic considerations of race in higher education admissions policies. In particular, Articles 2 and 26 of the ICCPR prohibit discrimination and guarantee effective protection against practices with discriminatory effects. The U.S. ratified the ICCPR in 1992. When it was reviewed by the U.N. Human Rights Committee in 2011, the U.S. noted that educational policies aimed at achieving racial diversity and avoiding racial isolation help the U.S. to implement the Covenant’s equality guarantees.
If any of the Justices do, in fact, consider international law in assessing the constitutionality of holistic considerations of race in college admissions, it would not be first time. In 2003, in Grutter v. Bollinger, the Court considered the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policy and affirmed the school’s compelling interest in ensuring the educational benefits of diversity in higher education, emphasizing the advantages of diversity for all students and for the country as a whole. In a concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburg noted that the Court’s decision was consistent with international understanding of affirmative action, citing to CERD as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). She similarly cited to CERD and CEDAW in her dissenting opinion that day in Gratz v. Bollinger.
Are Justices likely to cite directly to international law this time around? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, human rights can provide important context for their consideration of the case.
Sixty-seven amicus briefs were filed in Fisher in support of the university. These briefs note the benefits of diversity in higher education, the importance of expanding opportunity for students from all backgrounds, and the importance of preventing racial isolation in colleges and universities. Likewise, amici, including Fortune 100 companies and retired military and national defense leaders, urge the Court to consider ways in which a diverse university and workforce are in the national interest, and critical to America’s success. As the human rights amici note, ensuring equal opportunity in college admissions serves the important (and entirely consistent) function of helping to bring the United States in line with its human rights commitments, as well.