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National Civil Rights Group Pushes Back in UT Affirmative Action Lawsuit

The University of Texas in Austin has been a legal battleground in determining the role of race and ethnicity in college admissions.EXPAND
The University of Texas in Austin has been a legal battleground in determining the role of race and ethnicity in college admissions.
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A national civil rights group is asking a Texas court to rule against an anti-affirmative action organization that's seeking to have the University of Texas' admissions policy declared unlawful.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington-based nonprofit, filed a petition in intervention last week in Students for Fair Admissions' lawsuit against UT. In the petition, the organization includes statements from several current UT students explaining how the university's race-conscious admissions policy had affected them and how doing away with it would damage the university.

David Hinojosa, an attorney for the civil rights group, said the lawsuit marks a critical time in the state's higher education landscape.

"This is incredibly important, not just for the students at UT but for the greater students of Texas and even beyond," Hinojosa said. "UT helps build the next generation of qualified leaders, and those leaders should reflect the state's richness and diversity."

Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group founded by conservative legal strategist Ed Blum, sued UT in May, seeking to have the university's admissions policy declared invalid because it considers applicants' race and ethnic backgrounds.

Most students at UT are admitted automatically based on their high school class ranks under Texas' top 10% rule. The rest are admitted through a review process that takes a number of factors into account, including academic record, essays, and race and ethnic background.

University officials have argued that they need to consider applicants' race during the admissions process in order to promote campus diversity. But in the lawsuit, attorneys for Students for Fair Admissions argue that campus diversity isn't a compelling state interest as defined under the Texas Constitution, meaning the university shouldn't be allowed to show preference toward any one racial group over another in order to achieve it.

Desiree Ortega, a UT junior, wrote a statement that removing race as a factor in the admissions process "is erasing me as a student at UT" and other students like her, whose race and ethnic backgrounds have affected their entire lives. She also said attending a university with a diverse student body has allowed her to get to know and understand students who are different from her.

"Being around students from diverse racial backgrounds at UT has improved my ability to empathize with others because the friends I made here were willing to share their experiences with me," Ortega wrote. "I would not have these experiences if I went to a less diverse college anywhere else."

Ortega, 24, told the Observer that she graduated from high school in Cypress, a northwestern suburb of Houston. Her high school was competitive, she said, and other students had more information than she did about the college admissions process and how taking AP and advanced classes would affect their class ranks, eventually making them eligible for automatic admission to UT or Texas A&M.

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Ortega enrolled in community college when she graduated from high school, making her the first member of her family to go to college. When the time came to transfer to a four-year university, she applied to UT. The admissions process allowed her to write about her identity as a Latina, her Christian faith and other aspects of her background, she said. The application process left her with the impression that the university valued those characteristics, which made her feel like she belonged there, she said.

"I don't think that I would feel that way if UT didn't consider race in their admissions process," she said.

The suit isn't the first time the organization has sought to end UT's race-conscious admissions policy. In 2008, the group filed a suit in federal court on behalf of Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was denied admission to UT. The group argued that because the policy gave preference to non-white applicants, it violated the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection clause. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities may use race as one factor among many in a holistic admissions process.

In 2017, the organization filed a similar lawsuit in Travis County district court, this time arguing the policy violates the Texas Constitution. That lawsuit was dismissed, but the group was allowed to refile it last May with new plaintiffs.

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