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Is Affirmative Action Dead? Life After Fisher v. University of Texas

Diversity Panel


One day after class, a visibly upset student approached Leon Jones, M.D. and confided that one of her professors had made a disparaging comment about people on food stamps.

Her father was killed on the job, leaving her mother to raise three kids solo, and the family had been intermittently on public aid, explained Jones, associate dean for student affairs at University of California, Davis. And here she was, a second-year medical student with an EMT for an older sister and a younger brother enrolled at Stanford, asking, “What should I do?”

Jones suggested she go back and talk to her professor, which she did, and the following day, the professor did as Jones expected and addressed his entire class with an apology and short lecture on unconscious bias. The experience was an important learning opportunity for the student, who continued to find her voice, her classmates who were disabused of stereotypes, and the faculty member and the generations of students he’ll influence over the course of his career, Jones said. “And none of that would have happened if she weren’t there.”

The anecdote, says Jones, “brings home why diversity is so important to the learning environment.” But efforts by academic centers to create more diverse campuses are under scrutiny as the U.S. Supreme Court takes up for the second time, Fisher v. University of Texas. The outcome of the case will doubtless shape university admissions policies for years to come—which was the focus of a panel discussion led by Jones Sunday at an annual conference of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).

Abigail Fisher applied for admission to University of Texas at Austin (UT) and was rejected under race-conscious admissions policies that she later challenged in court. She lost in the federal courts, but appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 2013 ruled that the Fifth Circuit had not properly reviewed the case. The case was kicked back to the Fifth Circuit, which upon further review again upheld UT’s policies as constitutional. Fisher appealed again and the high court is expected to take up the case this fall.

The outcome is anyone’s guess. The issues in the first appeal are now “almost a footnote in round two,” said AAMC panelist Arthur Coleman, a lawyer and co-founder of the Education Counsel. Either Texas or the plaintiffs could win. It could be a draw, or the high court could punt for lack of standing. But Coleman believes “it matters less if UT wins, or not, than how UT wins or not.”

Jones stressed that most universities today take a more holistic approach to screening college applications than is implied by the “affirmative action” label.

At UC Davis, admissions officers look at grades, MCAT scores and work experience, but also at lifestyle experiences, or obstacles that students have overcome. They also take into account the geographic origin of students, their resilience and motivations for wanting to go to medical school. “Are they intellectually curious? What are their communication skills?” Jones says. “How many languages do they speak? What are their critical thinking and problem solving skills, their values and ethics?”

Doing so has yielded a more ethnically diverse and gender-balanced medical school. But it’s not a quota system, nor a lowering of standards, says Jones, noting that UC Davis has a 100 percent match rate. “It’s about expanding the knowledge and environment of the entire school. It’s about producing better doctors.”

Diversity and inclusion has become an imperative, even in historically homogenous places like Utah, says Ana Maria Lopez, M.D., M.P.H., the University of Utah’s new Associate Vice President for Health Equity and Inclusion and Director of Cancer Health Equity at Huntsman Cancer Institute. The country’s demographics are changing. In Salt Lake City, 50 percent of school children are Latino, Lopez says.

Lopez is leading an effort at University of Utah Health Sciences to create “an environment of inclusive excellence.” That means working with the community to better understand how the health system can meet the community’s needs—the entire community, she says. It also means making research and clinical care more inclusive, not just education. And it must be evidenced-based. “Diversity means bringing everyone to the table,” says Lopez, “and inclusion means making sure everyone has a voice.”

By: Kirsten Stewart

Kirsten Stewart is a senior writer for University of Utah Health Sciences