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A Huge Victory for Diversity

Image of main building of University of Texas
University of Texas

Diversity scored a big victory when the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the University of Texas’ race-based affirmative action plan for its undergraduate admission! The landmark decision in Fisher v. University of Texas case came as a welcome surprise to the champions of diversity.

The New York Times quotes Prof. Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at the Harvard University as: “No decision since Brown v. Board of Education has been as important as Fisher will prove to be in the long history of racial inclusion and educational diversity”. Brown v. Board of Education is a 1954 decision by the Supreme Court that struck down racial segregation in public schools.

The New York Times also quotes President Obama hailing the decision. “I’m pleased that the Supreme Court upheld the basic notion that diversity is an important value in our societyWe are not a country that guarantees equal outcomes, but we do strive to provide an equal shot to everybody.

Yale and University of Michigan have also welcomed the decision.

Image of protesters in suits marching with placards
African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–68) (Source: Wikipedia)

Some Facts

The University of Texas at Austin admitted top 10% students of graduating classes of Texas’ high schools. Students who did not meet this cut-off could still gain admission if they scored high in a formula that included race as one of the evaluative components. The plaintiff contended that she would have gained admission if the formula did not consider race as one of the factors. She contended that the admission process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The case required re-evaluation of the famous Grutter v. Bollinger decision that had upheld race-conscious admission process that promotes diversity. Based on the Supreme Court bench’s constitution, a decision overturning the precedent and striking down affirmative action was expected. In a surprising turn of events, the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action by a vote of 4:3.

And the Decision

The Supreme Court drew from earlier precedents including Grutter to highlight that diversity is not just a charitable goal (means to promote social justice), but is absolutely critical to promoting learning outcomes and enhancing the quality of college education.

Here are some key extracts from the ruling:

“…a university may institute a race-conscious admissions program as a means of obtainingthe educational benefits that flow from student body diversity.””

“student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society.”

“….A university is in large part defined by those intangible “qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness.”… Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission. But still, it remains an enduring challenge to our Nation’s education system to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity. In striking this sensitive balance, public universities, like the States themselves, can serve as “laboratories for experimentation.”

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of universities applying a race-conscious admission program while championing the goal of diversity. However, it failed to clearly define the limits to affirmative action that the universities have to comply with. A race-conscious admission policy will have to meet the strict scrutiny test, a highly rigorous standard of judicial review that evaluates if the compelling government interest (diversity in this case) outweighs a constitutional right principle (equality in this case). One of the conditions of the test is constant reassessment of the race-conscious program in light of changing circumstances. The Supreme Court warned:

Formalistic racial classifications may sometimes fail to capture diversity in all of its dimensions and, when used in a divisive manner, could undermine the educational benefits.”

Here is the link to the US decision:


Case for Diversity

Affirmative action in universities could be expected to have a ripple effect. On exposure to a diverse student body, one is more likely to move beyond the narrow confines of a closed door discussion with a cosy cabal of friends hailing from largely homogenous backgrounds. Those who interact with more diverse students bodies would embrace a larger and more plural worldview/perspective in their workspace. Such a perspective could potentially make one more creative and smarter in the workplace as well (hear hear… to all those potential employers!)….as this piece will demonstrate:

We’ve reflected on this “business case” for diversity in our piece for a Harvard project on the globalisation of the legal profession. For those interested, here is a link:

Some of the benefits of diversity in workspace that have been discerned include increased customer satisfaction through workforce composition being representative of wider customer pool, greater innovation through diverse perspectives and better problem-solving. A detailed survey of literature in this area is available here.


Written by Prof. Shamnad Basheer, Founder and Managing Trustee, IDIA, and Swati Agrawal, Director, IDIA

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