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Federal judge rules UNC-Chapel Hill's use of race in admissions is constitutional

The Old Well and flowers on the campus of UNC- Chapel Hill.
Brian Batista
The Old Well and flowers on the UNC- Chapel Hill campus.

A federal judge has ruled that UNC-Chapel Hill’s treatment of a race in its admissions policies is not discriminatory and does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

"This decision makes clear the University's holistic admissions approach is lawful," University spokeswoman Beth Keith said in a written statement.

Students for Fair Admissions, Incorporated sued UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014 arguing its admissions policies were racially discriminatory against Asian American and white students. The nonprofit’s founder and president Edward Blum said in a press release he intends to appeal the decision to the US Fourth Court of Appeals, and if unsuccessful, the Supreme Court.

UNC-Chapel Hill has long argued it does not use racial quotas to determine who should join its student body, and instead considers applicants holistically.

U.S. District judge Loretta Biggs agreed, writing: “race is not a predominant factor in the University’s admissions program through policy or practice, nor is it a defining feature of any individual application.”

Biggs presided over a two-week trial in Winston-Salem last fall and made her ruling this week.

Biggs wrote that while the University is pursuing diversity among its student body, it has a long way to go, saying students who are minorities still experience overt racism, while often, “feeling isolated, ostracized, stereotyped and viewed as tokens in a number of University spaces.”

Students for Fair Admissions has taken aim at multiple universities in its pursuit to bring the issue of affirmative action in college admissions before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The group has unsuccessfully sought to overturn affirmative action policies at the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University in the past several years.

In 2016, the Supreme Court sided with University of Texas in a case supported by Students For Fair Admissions. Since that ruling, two of the justices in the majority opinion -- and one seat that was vacant at the time -- have been replaced by Trump appointees.

“It is our hope that one of our cases [against Harvard or UNC-Chapel Hill] will eventually be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the justices will strike down this divisive and polarizing part of students’ application process,” Blum told WUNC last year.

In February, Students For Fair Admissions petitioned the Supreme Court to hear its appeal in the Harvard case. The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether to hear the case.

Cole del Charco is an audio producer and writer based in Durham. He's made stories for public radio's All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Marketplace. Before joining Due South, he spent time as a freelance journalist, an education and daily news reporter for WUNC, and a podcast producer for WFAE in Charlotte.
Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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