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Five percent of students at the University of Texas at Austin are black; 18 percent are Hispanic; and 15 percent, Asians. Texas is fighting a discrimination lawsuit from Abigail Fisher, a rejected white applicant.
Eric Gay/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Date published: 10/7/2012
AP Education Writer
AUSTIN, Texas--Walking across the South Mall, or scanning the football stadium's 100,000 seats on game day, University of Texas admissions director Kedra Ishop sees how much has changed since the 1990s, when she was a black student at what was an inordinately white school.
This giant flagship campus--once so slow to integrate--is now awash in color, among the most diverse in the country if not the world. The student body, like Texas, is majority-minority.
At the dining hall, minority students no longer cluster together. Actually, it's more a high-end food court now, and many tables are racial mosaics--white, black, Hispanic, Asian.
So is this the "critical mass" of minority students that U.S. Supreme Court narrowly endorsed in 2003 as an educational goal important enough to allow colleges to factor the race of applicants into admissions decisions?
That question will be front and center Wednesday when a more conservative Supreme Court revisits affirmative action for the first time since that landmark case nine years ago involving the University of Michigan.
This time, it's Texas defending the use of race in admissions, fighting a discrimination lawsuit from Abigail Fisher, a rejected white applicant. As it happens, the court's decision will affect relatively few students at Texas, which admits most students through a system that doesn't factor in race. But a broad ruling rolling back affirmative action could be an earthquake at other campuses across the country that make more use of race, potentially changing the educational trajectories of millions of students.
For all the wrenching debates about opportunity and fairness the affirmative action debate evokes, the outcome will likely come down to how the current justices fill out the answer to questions they began to answer in 2003: What is critical mass, and how far can a university go to achieve it? Generally, it's the point where there's enough diversity on campus to provide a rich educational environment. But beyond that, it's a concept critics call maddeningly vague and supporters necessarily so. Is it enough for the student body to be diverse overall, or must all groups be well represented? What if there's diversity in the student body, but not in most individual classrooms?