In this month’s letter, Dr. Rick Valachovic discusses the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the use of race as one factor in holistic admissions decisions at the University of Texas at Austin.
June has come and gone, and universities around the country are breathing a collective sigh of relief. The Supreme Court has finally ruled on the role of race in admissions in higher education.
During the just concluded term, the Court revisited the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Fisher II) and ruled that the race-conscious admissions program used by the university was lawful under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The University of Texas at Austin (UT) instituted a holistic admissions program, which allowed the consideration of race as one of many factors in the admissions process. Although the approach to college admissions used at UT is unique, the Court’s decision signaled that the higher education community stands on solid ground when using race as one factor in holistic admission programs.
The Court first heard Fisher (now known as Fisher I) in 2013 but declined to render a decision. Instead, the justices remanded the case to a lower court to determine whether UT’s admissions policy met the standard of “strict scrutiny.” In other words, the justices wanted the lower court to determine whether the use of race-conscious policies achieved a level of diversity in practice that the university could not achieve through race-neutral policies alone. (For a fuller history of the original case, see my August 2013 Charting Progress.) In 2015, the lower court held that the university had indeed met the strict scrutiny standard, and once again, the case went back to the Supreme Court.
In Fisher II, the most recent decision, the Court affirmed earlier rulings that recognized the value of diversity in educational settings. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated, “[T]he compelling interest that justifies consideration of race in college admissions is not an interest in enrolling a certain number of minority students, but an interest in obtaining ‘the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity,’” a phrase quoted from the Fisher I decision.
ADEA views the Supreme Court’s ruling as critical to acknowledging the unique value that diversity brings to students, staff and faculty throughout dental education. ADEA demonstrated its commitment to diversity in higher education by signing onto three amicus briefs that were submitted to the Supreme Court in the case (No. 11-345 in 2012, No. 09-50822 in 2013 and No. 14-981 in 2015). Our Association is proud of its leadership role in championing access, diversity and inclusion, most visibly through the promotion of holistic review—a balanced assessment of each candidate’s experiences, attributes and metrics—in admissions to our academic dental institutions.
Since 2005, we have been offering training and technical assistance to member schools in how to implement this approach to screening applicants, and our efforts have had a measurable impact. A noteworthy 93% of dental schools reported that they used holistic review in a 2014 survey of schools of the health professions, and other health professions educators are looking to learn from our example.
In the past year, ADEA staff and holistic review trainers from our member institutions have presented at both nursing and pharmacy education conferences and at schools of veterinary medicine. We will embark on a new chapter in our diversity efforts in October, when we will host two sessions focused on unconscious bias at the ADEA Fall Meetings. In 2017, the University of Michigan and the University of Florida will also pilot unconscious bias workshops modeled after those developed by the Association of American Medical Colleges Learning Lab. These workshops will be customized for our schools and programs and, if the pilot goes well, we hope to make this training widely available by next summer.
The CODA Predoctoral Accreditation Standards include three dimensions of diversity:
- Structural or compositional diversity, which refers to the makeup of the student body, faculty and staff at a program or institution.
- Curricular or classroom diversity, which refers to the presence of content that promotes the integration of skills, insights and experiences from diverse groups in academic settings.
- Institutional or interactional diversity, which focuses on each school’s climate or environment and whether it values diversity and provides opportunity for informal learning among diverse peers.
There is still much work to be done on all three of the fronts designated in the CODA standards, and the Fisher II ruling made clear that the Court will be watching to see whether institutions go about that work in ways that are consonant with their missions and “narrowly tailored” to meet precise goals. Justice Kennedy concludes, “The court’s affirmance of the University’s admissions policy today does not necessarily mean the University may rely on that same policy without refinement. It is the University’s ongoing obligation to engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection regarding its admissions policies.”
Over time, these decisions affect not only our schools, but also the ability of all people, including the uninsured and economically disadvantaged, to access dental care from dental providers from varied cultural backgrounds. These issues are important, within our community and beyond.
Related content from previous issues of Charting Progress
Preparing to Lead in the Post-Fisher Era
Diversifying the Dentist Workforce, One Cohort at a Time
Number of American Indian Dentists Experiences Amazing Growth Spurt
Can a Girl From the Caribbean Find Happiness in Nebraska? Tales from the AAMC/ADEA Summer Medical and Dental Education Program
Math Literacy: A New Civil Right for an Information Age
Getting the Whole Story: A Holistic Admissions Process
Today’s Students-Tomorrow’s Colleagues