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Trial on UNC-Chapel Hill's race-related admissions ends, but ruling could take months

Trial on UNC-Chapel Hill's race-related admissions ends, but ruling could take months

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WINSTON-SALEM — A trial evaluating UNC-Chapel Hill's race-conscious admissions process came to a end Thursday, as lawyers for the university and the group Students for Fair Admissions gave closing arguments.

The central question is whether UNC meets the strict scrutiny standard for why and how heavily it uses race in admissions.

Over the past two weeks, federal district Judge Loretta Biggs has heard from lawyers, students, alumni, professors, researchers and admissions directors defending and attacking UNC's admissions practices. The bench trial was held in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Winston-Salem.

Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action group led by activist Edward Blum, sued UNC in 2014, arguing that statistics show UNC unfairly uses race when considering applications. The lawsuit claims UNC gives preference to Black and Hispanic students over white and Asian-American students.

The group is made up of thousands of rejected applicants, prospective students and parents who are concerned about unequal treatment and racial preferences in the application process.

The group brought no students to testify in trial and relied heavily on statistical models from Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke University economics professor, who analyzed and predicted UNC's admissions data. The group's goal is to end the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions.

UNC has defended its admissions practices, saying an applicant's race is important, but not dominant and is essential to improving diversity on campus, which enhances students' academic experience.

One lawyer for UNC said the admissions team is "doing the right thing, for the right reasons, in the right way."

The university argues it uses race as one of many factors in evaluating applicants and does not use quotas or formulas. Students can share their race or ethnicity in their application, but admissions staff also considers other factors, including their academic performance, test scores, class rank, essays and potential to contribute to the university and community.

'Critical mass' of diverse students

Lawyers presented the closing arguments for SFFA and identified three issues in this case.

The first is the standard for a "critical mass" of diverse or minority students, which stems from U.S. Supreme Court cases Grutter v. Bollinger and Fisher v. University of Texas. SFFA lawyers argue the Supreme Court has been clear that race-conscious admission policies must be limited. UNC has to have a concrete, pre-set goal that is not amorphous when determining a critical mass, they say. Then, the university knows when it has reached that threshold and using race is no longer necessary.

UNC has not defined critical mass, what that goal is, how it is measurable and how they know when they will get there, the lawyers argued.

The lawyers for UNC said in closing arguments that the university does not have quotas and can't provide a specific number. However, the university argues that critical mass is not simply numerical, but also contextual.

UNC's lawyer said the Supreme Court explains that the permissible compelling interest is in the education benefits of diversity. One of the ways UNC tries to determine if they've achieved it is by asking students if UNC has created the environment for them that they say they want in terms of studying and living alongside people that are different from them.

Race as a dominant factor

One of SFFA's biggest arguments is based on the testimony of Arcidiacono. The lawyers say his work provides statistical evidence that UNC's admission process is formulaic and that race is a dominant factor.

They used this data to show that African-American and Hispanic students are admitted at higher rates compared to whites and Asians and argue that race dominates the process.

But UNC lawyers argued that the university uses a holistic approach to evaluate candidates and shape each class. They shared testimonies of admissions staff and administrators who said the team tries to make sense of whole people and views applicants as human beings, not numbers.

They said the university trains its application readers to meet students where they are and understand they come from all walks of life. The lawyers conceded that race is one factor and may influence decisions that are "on the bubble," but that importance should not be mistaken for dominance.

Finding other methods

The third issue was over UNC's efforts to use other methods to diversifying the student body.

SFFA argued UNC has failed to seriously consider workable race-neutral alternatives to achieve racial diversity on campus. The lawyers cited examples of how other universities have found solutions.

UNC officials and lawyers say the university has researched alternatives, but have not found someone that can replace it.

Level of support

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was an intervener in the case, representing UNC students and also presenting closing arguments.

Several former UNC students shared how having diverse classmates improved their educational experience, offered them more personal support and made them feel safer on campus. Multiple students said there need to be more students of color on campus.

Hannah Watson, a Black alumna, told the court about how her life was shaped by her race. Watson was a Robertson Scholar at UNC and graduated in 2020. She said if UNC ended its consideration of race in the admissions process that would show students of color that UNC doesn't care about their racial experiences.

"It would show a lack of awareness of the very real impacts of race in America and globally if they didn't ask those sorts of questions," Watson said.

She said she wanted to participate in the trial to give a face to some of the numbers being presented when talking about UNC's admissions process.

"Using race in admissions is not just about numbers, it's about real people with real experiences," Watson said. "I thought this would be an opportunity to do justice, just by telling my story ... I can be a part of anti-racism efforts."

What's next for the case?

While the trial concluded Thursday, the parties will each have 30 days to submit their proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The judge will then issue her opinion, which could take months.

The losing party could also appeal that ruling to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a similar case, SFFA recently appealed a federal judge's ruling that Harvard should continue to consider race in its admissions process.

The UNC case also resembles Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allows race to be considered in undergraduate admissions decisions.

Both the UNC and Harvard cases could end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, as Blum and SFFA continue to fight to eliminate race from the college admissions process.

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