The U.S. Supreme Court ordered Monday a more limited role for racial preference in college admissions but did not fully overturn the affirmative action law.
The court ruled 7-1 in Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin to return the case to a lower court for further work, saying there should be a narrower use of race in deciding college admissions.
Scotusblog.com, a website that covers Supreme Court decisions live, quoted from Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion: "The reviewing court must ultimately be satisfied that no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity."
Jeff Milem, a University of Arizona professor of educational policy studies and practice, participated in research used in this and previous higher education affirmative action cases. Research shows diversity is important, he said.
"There are benefits to educationally diverse learning environments that don’t exist in more racially homogeneous learning environments. And in order to achieve these benefits certain sorts of conditions need to be in place," Milem said. "In this instance in Texas, you have to have a diverse student body and a diverse student body that extends into the classroom level."
A 10-year-old Supreme Court case involving the University of Michigan's admission policies is the standard for affirmative action. It said race can be used as one factor in college admissions. The Court on Monday cited that decision as the standing law, but two justices, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, indicated they would overturn it if asked.
In his dissenting opinion, Thomas wrote, "“Blacks and Hispanics admitted to the university as a result of racial discrimination are, on average, far less prepared than their white and Asian classmates.”
Those students have lower SAT and ACT test scores, Thomas said, and are not able to close the achievement gap.
But Thomas is using a narrow set of predictors for academic success, Milem said.
"What Justice Thomas is arguing essentially here is that ACT scores and SAT scores should be the only predictors of success in college. And in fact, places like Texas, places like the U of A use a variety of indicators to determine success and admission," Milem said.
The ruling was expected to have an impact on Arizona's public universities, all of which apply affirmative action standards to their admissions processes. The effect may not be felt until the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, to which Monday's case is being returned, sorts out the details.
Arizona voters approved a proposition in 2010 that said the state "shall not grant preferential treatment to or discriminate against any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment or public contracting."
The UA pledged to continue striving for racial diversity in its student body while not using race as a factor for admission.
The university's assistant vice president and chief diversity officer, Raji Rhys, declined an interview request to discuss how the Supreme Court's decision could affect the UA.