Diversity in danger?

Photo by Brian Turner, Creative Commons

Photo by Brian Turner, Creative Commons

In the 2003 vote in a decision that upheld Affirmative Action as constitutional, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [of diversity in higher education.]"

But now the issue is before the Court again, and some experts think O’Connor’s estimate may get cut in half as the Supreme Court readies a decision that could impact the makeup of campuses across the nation.

In the case—Fisher v. University of Texas—undergraduate applicant Abigail Fisher argues her application to the university was disadvantaged, and ultimately denied, because of her race (Fisher is white). As it stands now, race may be considered “as one factor among many,” sometimes called a “plus-factor,” in admissions decisions because there is a “legitimate state interest” in “diversity in higher education,” according to Supreme Court precedent.

But a curious fact about the Fisher case hints at a change in the wind: the Court has already heard it once. The first time, in 2012, the justices tacitly supported Affirmative Action by ruling on procedural grounds and kicking the case back down to the lower courts, where race-conscious admissions policies were upheld.

“Now that the Court has taken it up again, it suggests they weren’t happy with the results at the lower level and therefore could be getting ready for a new direction on Affirmative Action, ” said Constitutional Law professor Mike Zarkin.

For some at Westminster, this is concerning.

“Kids like me, white kids, complain about being disadvantaged in the admissions process,” said Austin Anderson, political science major. “But people of color and minorities see disadvantage every single day in education, and the minute a white student feels disadvantaged in the admissions process, it becomes a national-scale issue.”

Although, a recent shake up on the Court complicates the forecast. The Fisher case was taken on before the death of Justice Scalia, strict conservative and known opponent of Affirmative Action. Elena Kagan, the newest member of the bench, will recuse because she worked on the case as solicitor general before her judicial appointment, reducing the number of deciding justices to seven.  

“The Court hasn’t decided a case with only seven justices in quite some time. But they can do it,” Zarkin said. “It looks like it could be four to three in favor of overturning [Affirmative Action.] But one way or another, universities are going to find ways to increase academic diversity because they value it. They’re just going to have to use other mechanisms.”

In this regard, Westminster is ahead of the curve.

“We’re one of the only schools that implements a holistic review in admissions, which is unique for a school with as competitive admissions programs as ours,” said Darlene Dilley, director of admissions. “That opens our doors to students who wouldn’t be eligible for admission based on GPA and test score.”

Average academic requirements for admission are a 3.5 GPA and a 25 ACT score, but the holistic approach takes into account “non-cognitive” factors, including “things like leadership or participation in clubs or community groups,” explained John Baworowsky, vice president of enrollment and student success admissions.

“A lot of cool things students are doing that indicate they have the potential to be successful even though their grade point average or test score might not be as high as others,” Baworowsky said. “We take in every factor of a student’s application and background.”

The college appears to take diversity seriously. But how diverse, really, is Westminster? Not especially, according to the numbers.

White students account for more than 70 percent of Westminster’s 2,100 undergraduates, according to data from 2015. The next largest group are Hispanic/Latinos, who total 200. There are less than 40 African American students, only 10 Native American students and a mere three Pacific Islanders (12 percent of students are either “two or more races” or of “unknown ethnicity”).

“We’re happy we saw increases in Latino students,” Barworowsky said. “We’re not happy we enrolled the same number of AA students last year. It comes up in meetings all the time.”

With the exception of BYU, whose student body is 82 percent white, Westminster’s degree of ethnic diversity is closely comparable to other colleges and universities in Utah. Many students believe diversity can’t be achieved by admissions policies alone and should instead to be a product of the student culture.

“We talk a lot about being liberal and progressive, but is our general student population interested in being diverse?” asked Sabi Lowder, first-year student. “Are LE requirements getting kids to take classes that will open their eyes and expose them to things outside of their world? Sitting in Shaw, I’ve heard things like, ‘He’s one of the four black kids on campus. Not the basketball player, but the one that snowboards.’ I think that says a lot about the state of diversity on campus.”

However, Lowder, a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Center, said: “The numbers are only part of the story. I’ve been really impressed with what the Diversity Center is doing to foster a culture of inclusion and creating resources for minority students to feel safe and confident on campus.”

Indeed, Westminster’s Diversity Center now has a full time student director, Daniel Cairo. And Provost Lisa Gentile is on the brink of filling the executive level diversity officer.

Nonetheless, the fuss over the Fisher decision at the Supreme Court level continues and future students hang in the balance as the Court gets ready to weigh in.

Austin Anderson, political science major, said: “Whatever the Fisher decision is, I hope public universities find ways to increase equal opportunity in education.  And for Westminster’s part, I think our college is doing a pretty good job of trying to increase diversity.”