Politics & Government

UNC defends itself after lawsuit claims admissions process unfairly uses race

A tour group of parents, future students and family members learn the history of UNC’s Old Well on the Chapel Hill campus.
A tour group of parents, future students and family members learn the history of UNC’s Old Well on the Chapel Hill campus. News & Observer file photo

A group suing UNC-Chapel Hill accuses the university of improperly using race to admit students, to the detriment of white and Asian-American applicants. But UNC defends its practices.

On Friday, the university filed a motion for summary judgment, saying the plaintiffs hadn’t established sufficient grounds for their lawsuit to continue. In a message to the campus Friday, Chancellor Carol Folt and Provost Bob Blouin said: “Our admissions policies and practices comply with the spirit and letter of the law, and we will continue to vigorously defend our position in this nationally significant case.”

An organization called Students for Fair Admissions sued UNC-Chapel Hill and Harvard University in November 2014. The lawsuits represent a major challenge to the use of race in college admissions. Court rulings in the cases could affect universities around the United States.

In Friday filings, the plaintiffs argue the university’s practices are unconstitutional. “UNC’s use of race is the opposite of individualized; UNC uses race mechanically to ensure the admission of the vast majority of underrepresented minorities,” the plaintiffs’ brief stated.

Edward Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, said in a news release that the court filing “exposes the startling magnitude of the University of North Carolina’s racial preferences.”

For example, Blum said, the filing contains statistical calculations from the plaintiff’s expert witness, Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, who demonstrated that an Asian-American male applicant from North Carolina with a 25 percent chance of getting into UNC would have his probability increase to about 67 percent if he were Latino and to more than 90 percent if he were African-American.

Students for Fair Admissions sued on behalf of rejected applicants, prospective students and parents. A group behind the plaintiffs, called the Project on Fair Representation, is funded by a group supported by conservative donors and foundations, according to news media reports.

UNC’s attorneys on Friday asked federal District Judge Loretta Biggs to hold a hearing on arguments on both sides of the motion to dismiss the case. Biggs has served on the Middle District of North Carolina since President Barack Obama appointed her in 2014.

Friday was the deadline for the university and the advocacy organization to submit written arguments.

The lawsuit contends that the university hasn’t complied with U.S. Supreme Court guidance in a case the high court returned to an appeals court in 2013. In returning the Fisher vs. University of Texas suit, the Supreme Court said race can only be considered in college admissions if it meets a constitutional test, narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.

The court said universities should first try “workable race-neutral alternatives.”

In Friday’s filing, the university says its admissions policy meets that constitutional test. The university’s attorneys also argue that it has a longstanding commitment to diversity.

UNC also says that race-neutral alternatives don’t promote the university’s diversity goals.

“In its academic judgment, the University has determined that pursuing the educational benefits of diversity is integral to fulfilling its mission to prepare the next generation of leaders,” according to the filing signed by Chicago attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the benefits of diversity: It promotes racial understanding, breaks down stereotypes and enables students of different races to better understand each other.

UNC says it has submitted to the judge more than 50 declarations from administrators, faculty, staff, students and alumni attesting to the value of diversity of many kinds on campus. The plaintiffs haven’t offered a rebuttal to that point, the university says.

The university also argues that race is just one of many factors when each applicant is considered during a holistic. There are no racial or ethnic quotas in the university’s admissions process, its filing says. And the number of students of a given race or ethnicity admitted is not part of the process.

“No reasonable trier of fact could conclude on this record that the University uses quotas, engages in racial set asides or point allocations, or intentionally discriminates against applicants based on race,” the brief said.

UNC says there are more than 40,000 applicants for a class of about 4,000 first-year students.

Students for Fair Admissions cites Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, who has written extensively about improving diversity through alternative considerations, such as socio-economic factors rather than race. UNC says that proposal goes beyond what the law requires, and wouldn’t achieve its goal.

In their letter to the campus, Folt and Blouin said the group that filed the lawsuit “aims to eliminate entirely the consideration of race in U.S. college admissions.”

The administrators also sought to reassure UNC students that they belong at the university. “We are proud of the contributions our students make in our community, and we want each of you to know that you rightfully earned your place here,” their message said.

The Harvard case went to trial late last year, with weeks of testimony that gripped the higher education world. A judge has yet to rule in the case.

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Craig Jarvis is in his seventh year covering politics for The N&O. He has been a reporter and editor here covering crime, legal affairs, general assignment, arts and real estate. Contact him at cjarvis@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4576.


Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.


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