Purdue, IU weigh in on affirmative action debate

November 18, 2012, 2:01 pm

ERIC WEDDLE

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Purdue and Indiana universities are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to tread lightly in how it reviews affirmative action on college campuses.

The court is deliberating whether race should continue as a factor in college admissions or be struck down, a change that could alter the makeup of colleges across the country, higher education experts said.

A decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin is not expected until spring, but if the court reverses a 2003 landmark case that endorsed the use of race as a factor at a Michigan college, it could affect the demographics of future freshman classes, said Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council of Education.

"If the Supreme Court would declare that the Michigan case was wrong, that would make most institutions, like IU and Purdue, forbidden to use race as one of the facts they consider in the holistic review of many factors for admissions," she said.

How that would directly affect Indiana's higher education landscape is unclear.

Officials at Purdue and Indiana universities would say little or nothing this week about the case and how it could alter admission policy. However, the two universities, as well as seven other research universities, signed on to an amicus brief that was submitted in support of the University of Texas, the Journal & Courier reported ( ). Dozens of other schools have filed their own briefs.

In Indiana, the state Commission for Higher Education is not considering reversing affirmative action as an admissions factor, a spokesperson said, because the policies are at the university level.

"Like universities across the country, Purdue is closely monitoring the Fisher v. University of Texas case," Pamela Horne, Purdue's dean of admissions, said in an email. "However, it's premature to predict whether the outcome will impact diversity at Purdue."

Of the 39,256 enrolled this fall at Purdue, 14 percent are characterized as minority domestic students.

The university considers minorities as those who fall in the categories of American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, black or African-American, Hispanic or Latino, and native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. At IU's Bloomington campus, 14.6 percent of the 42,133 enrolled are minority students.

Figuring out how many students in Indiana or the country would be at a disadvantage without affirmative action is hard to tell, Meloy said, because schools do not normally indicate how many people were let in because of race.

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Abigail Fisher claims in 2008 that she was denied admission on the campus because she is white. She has since graduated from another college.

Some of the liberal justices implied that a ruling changing the rules laid down in a 2003 University of Michigan case would create havoc not only for admissions offices, but also for district courts charged with interpreting the law.

But conservatives — who may command five votes on the court — appeared dissatisfied with the current standard for achieving a "critical mass" of minority students.

The University of Texas considers race in admissions because it does not reach that "critical mass" of minority students by its policy of automatically admitting state students in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating classes.

In the amicus brief filed by Purdue, IU and seven other research universities, they ask the court to uphold the 2003 ruling to "... tread lightly when reviewing university admission programs. As leading public universities, (they) share an interest in academic freedom, grounded in the First Amendment, that they have as universities to choose how to implement their institutional missions."

The brief also states a diverse student body helps fulfill the university's mission but does not suggest "quotas, racial balancing, or an attempt to mirror the racial and ethnic composition of a particular state or nation. ... When permitted by state law, race is but one one factor among many."

Meloy said the holistic approach that the university uses in admissions should include "race neutral" alternatives to affirmative action to diversify enrollment.

"Institutions should already be considering those, even if they are considering race, since they are supposed to be looking at race in the least impactful ways," she said.

At Purdue, Horne said many factors are considered.

"We recruit extensively across Indiana, throughout the country, and around the world so that our pool of applicants represents the diverse populations our students will live among and work with when they graduate," Horne said. "In addition, many of our outreach efforts are targeted."

For example, Purdue admissions staff members conduct application workshops in school districts where there are high populations of underserved students.

Multiple requests for comment from Indiana University about the case were not answered.

If the court were to overturn the 2003 ruling, it would not affect employee hiring or campus programs aimed at minorities, said Alysa Rollock, Purdue vice president for ethics and compliance. Programs such as the popular Minority Engineering Program are open to all races, Rollock said.

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Information from: Journal and Courier,

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