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Maine's Private Colleges Keep Close Eye on Texas Affirmative Action Case
10/09/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine's private liberal arts colleges worry that it could soon be illegal for them to use affirmative action, when deciding who, and who not, to admit. Colby, Bates and Bowdoin have all made it a priority to have diverse student bodies. They get there by considering race and ethnicity in their admissions decisions. But on Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to revisit the legality of using affirmative action in university admissions when it hears arguments in a landmark Texas case. Jay Field has more.

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Down in Texas, the state's top public university in Austin offers admission to all high school seniors who graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes. The case before the Supreme Court has to do with the kids who want to go to UT, but aren't in that top echelon.

In 2008, a young woman named Abigail Fisher was denied a spot at the flagship campus. Fisher sued the university, alleging that students with inferior grades and test scores were allowed in because they were minorities. The suit claims UT's admissions policy violates the equal protection clause of 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Dimtry Bam, an associate professor at the University of Maine School of Law, says it's Title VI of the Civil Rights Act that has colleges like Colby, Bates and Bowdoin worried.

"So the court has held that the Title VI provisions are, I guess, coterminous: have the same meaning, the same application as the 14th amendment requirement," Bam says.

The equal protection clause of the 14th amendment applies to all state institutions, including universities. Bam says Title VI of th Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination by private bodies that receive federal money. "Most private universities receive some sort of federal funding. They would be bound by the Title VI requirements."

That reality means top officials at Colby, Bates and Bowdoin will be watching the arguments before the Supreme Court this week closely. At Bowdoin, 31 percent of this year's student body identifies as non-white. Last year at Bates, where Leigh Weisenberger is dean of admission and financial aid, the number was 19 pecent.

"We were founded by abolitionists," she says. "And one of our number one goals since the very start, and we're talking back to 1855 here, has been to be open and accessible to all."

Weisenberger says small liberal arts colleges aren't allowed to have quotas based on race or ethnicity. But they take these factors into account, as part of what Weisenberger calls a holistic approach to admissions policy.

"And the reason we do that is not just for the good of our own institutions, but just to make sure that we are creating a truly global classroom setting, a truly global community, so that as we prepare our students to be those leaders and go out into the world, that we can promise them, promise their families, that they've truly had a divesified learning environment," Weisenberger says.

Bates is one of 37 liberal arts colleges, including Colby and Bowdoin, that have signed an amicus brief asking the high court to preserve their right to consider race and ethnicity in admissions decisions. Scott Meiklelohn is dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin. He says the university is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the case.

"At Bowdoin we have spent almost no time, certainly as an admissions staff, talking about what we would do if things were to change," Meiklelohn says.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Abigail Noel Fisher versus the University of Texas at Austin tomorrow. A decision in the case could come as late as next June.



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