The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill may continue using race as a factor in its admissions process, a federal judge ruled on Monday, rejecting the argument of a conservative nonprofit legal group that is trying to dismantle college affirmative action policies across the country.
In her ruling, which came down decidedly against the plaintiff, Judge Loretta C. Biggs said that the university’s use of race in deciding which students to admit was narrowly tailored, and that the university had made an effort to consider race-neutral alternatives.
“While no student can or should be admitted to this university, or any other, based solely on race,” she wrote, “because race is so interwoven in every aspect of the lived experience of minority students, to ignore it, reduce its importance and measure it only by statistical models,” as she said the plaintiff had done, “misses important context.”
The plaintiff, a group called Students for Fair Admissions, vowed to appeal if necessary all the way to the Supreme Court, where it would “ask the justices to end these unfair and unconstitutional race-based admissions policies,” the group’s founder, Edward Blum, said.
The organization is banking on a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority and is considering whether to hear a similar case against Harvard.
The legal standard governing racial considerations in admissions was established in 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled that a University of Michigan Law School admissions program did not violate the Constitution by giving special consideration to members of racial minority groups, so long as it took into account other factors on an individual basis.
“This decision makes clear that the university’s holistic admissions approach is lawful,” Beth Keith, an associate vice chancellor at U.N.C., said in a statement about Judge Biggs’s ruling. “We evaluate each student in a deliberate and thoughtful way, appreciating individual strengths, talents and contributions to a vibrant campus community where students from all backgrounds can excel and thrive.”
Students for Fair Admissions had argued that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — the state’s flagship public university — considered race in an unlawful, heavy-handed way, tilting the scales in favor of underrepresented minority applicants, so much so that a mathematical model was able to predict with 90 percent accuracy whether a student would be admitted.
The university acknowledged using race as a criterion in admissions decisions — but not racial quotas — in order to increase campus diversity. In testimony, the university said it considered race as part of a process that takes into account grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, socioeconomic status and family background.
The process resulted in a racially diverse freshman class in 2019 that was 55.7 percent white, 12.3 percent Asian American, 9 percent Hispanic and 8.9 percent Black.
Even so, Judge Biggs, of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, said in her ruling that the university had not gone far enough in creating a racially diverse class.
“Nearly 70 years after the first Black students were admitted to U.N.C., the minority students at the university still report being confronted with racial epithets, as well as feeling isolated, ostracized, stereotyped and viewed as tokens,” she wrote.
The ruling by Judge Biggs, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, was the latest defeat in a string of losses for Students for Fair Admissions and Mr. Blum in a decade-long quest to eliminate racial considerations in college admissions policies.
Mr. Blum had been behind similar action against the University of Texas. In a 4-to-3 decision in 2016, the Supreme Court shot down his claim, ruling that universities must be given substantial leeway in building their classes.
“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,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
Students for Fair Admissions also lost at the lower and appeals court level in a more recent case against Harvard that turned on similar claims, claiming that the university discriminated against Asian American applicants. Judge Allison D. Burroughs of the U.S. District Court in Boston ruled that race was not a “defining feature” of Harvard’s admissions process, which she said was “not perfect.”