Years After UNC-CH Was Sued Over Race-Related Admissions, That Trial Has Now Begun

Nov 9, 2020

Credit Dave DeWitt / WUNC

UNC-Chapel Hill now stands trial in federal district court to defend its race-conscious admissions practices. The trial, which began today in Winston-Salem, could potentially play a role in propelling the issue of affirmative action to the US Supreme Court. 

Students for Fair Admissions, Incorporated filed the lawsuit back in 2014, claiming that UNC-Chapel Hill's practices go beyond the legal bounds the Supreme Court has set for considering race in college admissions — to the detriment of white and Asian applicants. After years of investigation and a delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the case is now on trial.

UNC-Chapel Hill is the third university the plaintiff has targeted in its pursuit for the Supreme Court to overturn affirmative action policies used in college admissions. Students for Fair Admissions has unsuccessfully sought to overturn affirmative action policies at University of Texas at Austin and Harvard University in the past five years. The case against Harvard is awaiting appeal.

UNC-Chapel Hill says it considers race as a limited and legal factor in admissions. The university argues that it has a compelling educational interest to admit a diverse class, and cannot do so using only race neutral methods that recruit students based on their socioeconomic status.

Opening Arguments

Federal District Court Judge Loretta Biggs heard opening arguments in the case Monday from attorneys representing: the plaintiff Students For Fair Admissions; defendant UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC System; and UNC-Chapel Hill students and alumni who have been granted status as defendant intervenors in the case.

Judge Biggs is charged with deciding whether UNC-Chapel Hill meets the Supreme Court's strict scrutiny standard for using race as a limited factor in admissions.

In opening arguments, the attorney representing Students for Fair Admissions claimed UNC’s admissions practices violate the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause. The plaintiff argues the Supreme Court’s strict scrutiny standard puts the burden on the university to show that its admissions practices "narrowly tailor" the consideration of race in a "flexible, non-mechanical way" and do not use race as a defining feature.

The plaintiff’s key witness is Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economics professor who analyzed UNC's admissions data to quantify the preference UNC gives to under-represented minorities, which include Black, Native American and Hispanic applicants.

Arcidiacono argues white or Asian American applicants' chances of being accepted to UNC would significantly increase if they were African American or Hispanic, holding other variables constant.

The plaintiff’s attorney concluded his opening argument saying UNC does not have to "cling to its system of racial classification" to meet its admission goals. He claimed UNC uses "de facto quotas." 

Attorneys for UNC-Chapel Hill countered that the university uses race “in the right way” and “for the right reasons.” UNC officials have denied the use of any racial quotas.

UNC-Chapel Hill says its admissions process is holistic and considers every applicant as an individual with many qualities, including race. UNC claims race is not a dominant factor in its process and that it considers race in a limited, legal way.

UNC describes in its court filings that its admissions department has considered other race neutral methods — such as admitting in-state students who rank in the top 10% of their high school class — but concluded those methods would lower the academic quality of the accepted class and would not improve diversity. The university does employ some race-neutral methods to recruit and retain low income students.

Another aspect of UNC’s argument is that diversity is valuable to the educational setting for all UNC-Chapel Hill students. This argument is echoed by the intervenors, minority students and alumni whose attorneys say the work of creating an inclusive environment on the Chapel Hill campus is not yet done.

Related Court Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court sided with university admissions departments in 2016 in a similar case Students for Fair Admissions brought against the University of Texas at Austin. In an opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that colleges could consider an applicant’s race in admissions, but only in a limited way sufficient to meet a university’s goal of creating a diverse environment for the benefit of its students.

Kennedy has since retired from the court, and was replaced by Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh. President Trump’s latest appointment Amy Coney Barrett has since replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who also sided with the university in Fisher v. University of Texas Austin.

Students for Fair Admissions unsuccessfully sought to overturn affirmative action policies at Harvard University. A federal judge in Boston sided with Harvard in 2019, and that case is now awaiting appeal. 

If District Court Judge Biggs’s decision differs from the outcome of the federal case in Boston, that could increase the likelihood that either case may be considered by the Supreme Court on appeal. 

The trial is expected to run through Nov. 20.