WASHINGTON â Abigail Fisher is a slight young woman with strawberry blond hair, a smile that needs little prompting, a determined manner and a good academic record. She played soccer in high school, and she is an accomplished cellist.
But the university she had her heart set on, the one her father and sister had attended, rejected her. âI was devastated,â she said, in her first news interview since she was turned down by the University of Texas at Austin four years ago.
Ms. Fisher, 22, who is white and recently graduated from Louisiana State University, says that her race was held against her, and the Supreme Court is to hear her case on Wednesday, bringing new attention to the combustible issue of the constitutionality of racial preferences in admissions decisions by public universities.
âIâm hoping,â she said, âthat theyâll completely take race out of the issue in terms of admissions and that everyone will be able to get into any school that they want no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it.â
The university said Ms. Fisher would not have been admitted even if race had played no role in the process, and it questioned whether she has suffered the sort of injury that gives her standing to sue. But the universityâs larger defense is that it must be free to assemble a varied student body as part of its academic and societal mission. The Supreme Court endorsed that view by a 5-to-4 vote in 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger.
University officials said that the schoolâs affirmative action program was needed to build a student body diverse enough to include minority students with a broad range of backgrounds and for the campus to have a âcritical massâ of minority students in most classrooms. Interaction among students in class and around campus, said Kedra Ishop, the universityâs director of admissions, helps students overcome biases and make contributions to a diverse society. âThe role of U.T. Austin,â Dr. Ishop said, âis to provide leadership to the state.â
The majority opinion in the Grutter case, written by Justice Sandra Day OâConnor, rejected the use of racial quotas in admissions decisions but said that race could be used as one factor among many, as part of a âholistic review.â Justice OâConnor retired in 2006, and her replacement by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. may open the way for a ruling cutting back on such race-conscious admissions policies, or eliminating them.
Admissions officers at colleges and universities almost universally endorse the idea that students from diverse backgrounds learn from each other, overcome stereotypes, and in so doing prepare themselves for leadership positions in society. Many critics of affirmative action say that there is at best a weak correlation between race and having a range of views presented in the classroom.
Others say the Constitution does not permit the government to sort people by race, no matter how worthy its goal. âWhile racial diversity on college campuses is beneficial, it cannot be attained by racial discrimination,â said Edward Blum, an adviser to Ms. Fisher and a driving force behind the Fisher case.
The competing arguments are hard to test, but a recent visit to a freshman seminar at the University of Texas at Austin suggested that the intellectual life of undergraduates there is varied and vibrant.
The course was called Debates on Democracy in America, and the topic that day was âThe Known World,â Edward P. Jonesâs novel about a black slave owner.
It was only the third week of class, but the 18 students, of all sorts of ethnicities and backgrounds, talked easily and earnestly about contemporary echoes of slavery. An Asian student mentioned cheap labor in China. A Hispanic one talked about the ways employers in the United States take advantage of illegal immigrants.
Other comments ran counter to possible stereotypes. Dâwahn Kelley, a black student, said he hesitated to condemn the slave owner in the novel too harshly.
âYouâre judged on what you know, not what you donât know,â he said, referring to the limits