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Supreme Court Holds School’s Means of Achieving a Diverse Student Body Subject to Strict Scrutiny

June 28, 2013—The Supreme Court June 24 issued its long-awaited opinion in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. In a 7 to 1 decision with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg dissenting, the Court vacated and remanded the Fifth Circuit’s holding in favor of the university.  The Court reasoned that the lower court had not applied the appropriate standard of strict scrutiny in reviewing the university’s race-conscious admissions policy. This narrow holding leaves intact prior case law permitting the limited use of race and ethnicity in admissions where the use is narrowly tailored to meet the compelling state interest in the educational benefits of diversity.

In a June 24 statement, AAMC President and CEO Darrell G. Kirch, M.D., said, “The AAMC is pleased that the Supreme Court continues to recognize the educational benefits of diversity and the appropriateness of individualized, holistic review in admissions.  Diversity is a vital component of excellence in education, clinical care, and research at the nation’s medical schools and is a requirement for accreditation by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.”

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court vacating the Fifth Circuit’s holding and remanding the case: the lower court’s deference to the university’s educational judgment that student body diversity is essential to its educational mission was appropriate, however, deference should not have extended to the University’s race-conscious method of achieving that educational mission, which is subject to strict judicial scrutiny. The Court did not opine on whether the university had met its burden of demonstrating that its admissions process was narrowly tailored to meet its goals, leaving this to the Court of Appeals.

The Court did not overrule or change the underlying standard established in Grutter v. Bollinger and Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, taking these cases as “given.” Together, these cases hold that an institution of higher education may use a race-conscious admissions policy provided that it is narrowly tailored to meet the institution’s compelling interest in the educational benefits of a diverse student body. With these holdings intact, institutions of higher education, including medical schools, that consider an applicant’s racial and ethnic background as part of a holistic review process may continue to do so. However, the Court made clear that such institutions have the burden of demonstrating that race-conscious admissions policies and practices are narrowly tailored to meet educational goals, including providing proof that available, workable race-neutral alternatives would be insufficient to produce the educational benefits sought by the institution.

Fisher arose following an applicant’s denial of admission to the University of Texas at Austin, which accepts a majority of students through the Texas Top Ten Percent program that guarantees admission for students graduating in the top ten percent of a Texas high school. The rejected applicant, Abigail Fisher, sued the University, alleging that the university’s consideration of race for the remaining spots violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. [see Washington Highlights, Oct. 12, 2012].

The AAMC —joined by 29 organizations representing health care educators, providers, and students— filed an amicus brief urging the court to preserve Grutter to ensure a diverse, culturally competent health professional workforce to address the critical health needs of an increasingly diverse nation.


Geoffrey Young, Ph.D.
Senior Director, Student Affairs and Programs
Telephone: 202-741-6466

Heather Alarcon
Senior Corporate Counsel, Legal Services
Telephone: 202-478-9939


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Washington Highlights, a weekly electronic newsletter, features brief updates on the latest legislative and regulatory activities affecting medical schools and teaching hospitals.

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