UVM President: Affirmative Action Ruling Gives Schools Discretion

Jun 27, 2016

Somewhat buried in an avalanche of big recent news stories was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the affirmative action admissions policies at the University of Texas.

In that case, a white student challenged the university's admissions policy. The student argued that it was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for her to be denied admission because she said students of color were being enrolled over her and therefore the admissions decisions were denying her constitutional rights.

The University of Texas automatically admits the top 10 percent of students and then used a more holistic approach, which includes race and ethnicity in deciding which students are admitted. The court said it was permissible to take race into account, assuming that schools passed a test to be able to reach a constitutionally-acceptable result.

The University of Vermont uses the same approach as Texas. "In every one of our applications, we look at everything, holistic on the application. We take into account grade point, standardized test, leadership, courses taken, rigor of courses taken, educational and socio-economic backgrounds," UVM president Thomas Sullivan said. Sullivan had a dual interest in the case, as both the head of a university and as a lawyer.

"We don't live in a color-blind society unfortunately, today. That's the goal that our society is on a course to achieve, but we're not there yet." - Thomas Sullivan, UVM President

Sullivan said the ruling is clear that schools need to lay out a compelling case for why they are taking race into account. "That is to say that there's a substantial connection for the need to have race considered to meet the institution's goals and mission. The second part of that is that you could not achieve the diversity goals that you seek by any other means. Third, that the proposal that the university is using is narrowly tailored to meet its educational goals and fourth that you're balancing all of these interests to meet the university's mission and goals," he explained.

Some states, including New Hampshire, have banned affirmative action policies from their state schools entirely, but Sullivan said that's not the best approach.

"We don't live in a color-blind society unfortunately today. That's the goal that our society is on a course to achieve, but we're not there yet," he said. "As Justice [Anthony] Kennedy and the majority in this case has said, once you've met the criteria, the court gives deference to the institution to manage its own purpose and mission as it sees fit within these constitutional parameters."

"Remember, the court is saying that you have a constitutional discretion here, it is not constitutionally-mandated. So those states that have prohibitions, that's by state policy, this new decision will force state officials to re-look at those prohibitions now that the court has said firmly and clearly again that this is constitutionally within the discretion of the university as long as those conditions have been met," he said.

Click listen to hear the full interview with UVM President Thomas Sullivan.