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Stanford administrators committed to affirmative action

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While Supreme Court justices question the role of racial consideration as a factor in the college admissions, Stanford remains committed to upholding affirmative action, arguing that the policy helps to ensure a diverse student body. One Stanford professor has submitted a brief to the Supreme Court defending the practice.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday for the case Fisher v. the University of Texas. Abigail Fisher, a 22-year-old white female, is suing the University of Texas-Austin, claiming that she was denied acceptance to the university because of her race.

Along with other psychologists, Greg Walton, assistant professor of psychology, has submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court. The document provides a psychological perspective on racial stereotypes and their effect on minority groups’ performance on standardized measurements of merit.

Walton described standardized tests as “systematically biased” due to a well-tested phenomenon known as stereotype threat. Under stereotype threat, minority students will often underperform on academic exams simply because they are expected to do so.

“Affirmative action is one way to address that [problem], so that you end up admitting the best students– the students that have the greatest potential, even as defined by very traditional metrics,” Walton said.

As an element of an applicant’s background, race is one of the first considerations on applications to more than 480 universities who use the Common Application, including Stanford.

Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw stated that Stanford admission officers review an applicant’s background materials before their academic records. He said that the practice helps to better understand the students’ learning and living experience.

“We subscribe to the concept of affirmative action,” Shaw said. “We see the value of diversity well beyond this idea of admissions.”

According to Shaw, a Stanford classroom should mimic the multidimensional perspectives that can be found across the United States.

In the recent Supreme Court case, Fisher accuses the University of Texas of having too many methods in place to ensure a diverse classroom. With the Common Application and the 10 percent rule— promising admission to students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their class, often at schools with different socioeconomic compositions– the University of Texas, Fisher argued, was overdoing racial preferences.

Pam Karlan, a Stanford law professor, pointed to a nuance in the case, which she says specifies Fisher’s accusations.

“[Fisher] is not saying that nobody anywhere can take race into account,” Karlan said. “She’s saying that under the specific circumstances of this case, Texas can’t take race into account.”

Based on the 5-4 vote the last time the Supreme Court undertook a case about affirmative action– in 2003 with Grutter v. Bollinger— Karlan said the ruling would likely be close this time around as well.

Stanford and other peer institutions are joining efforts to prevent the Supreme Court from striking down affirmative action policies. In a brief from the president and chancellors at the University of California, authors outlined the failure to create a diverse campus under California’s Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in the state in 1996.

“The year after it passed, the number of African American, Latino, and Native American freshmen at UCLA and U.C. Berkeley dropped by over 50 percent,” the brief states.

Stanford’s Vice President and General Counsel Debra Zumwalt reinforced the University’s commitment to diversity and support for affirmative action.

“Highly qualified applicants are easy to find in our applicant pool,” Zumwalt said. “The issue really is: How do we craft a class that would be of the most benefit to our students in terms of having different interest, skills and perspectives?”

Shaw said while the University does not know how the Court will rule, Stanford remains a defender against racial bias and views affirmative action as the means to achieving a diverse student body.

“Stereotype threat is real; it is weaved into the social fabric,” Shaw said. “In universities, we can smash it.”

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