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University of North Carolina defends race-conscious admissions in federal lawsuit

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. (Jon Gardiner/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
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The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill urged a federal judge Friday to reject allegations of illegal racial bias in the public university’s admissions process and rule in its favor without allowing the lawsuit to go to trial.

At the same time, the plaintiff in the case — a group opposed to affirmative action called Students for Fair Admissions — also asked the judge to bypass a trial. The group said evidence showed that UNC gives too much weight to race and ethnicity in its admission process and has not given adequate consideration to race-blind strategies for enrolling a diverse class.

The dueling legal motions in federal court in North Carolina showed that the debate over race-conscious admissions is not limited to how Harvard University selects a class. Students for Fair Admissions filed separate suits challenging aspects of the admissions policies at Harvard and UNC in November 2014. The highly publicized Harvard case went to trial in the fall in federal court in Boston. The judge in that case has not issued a ruling.

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The president of Students for Fair Admissions, Edward Blum, was also involved in litigation challenging how the University of Texas considers race in admissions. Blum and his allies lost in the Texas case when the Supreme Court upheld UT’s methods in 2016.

On Friday, UNC urged U.S. District Judge Loretta C. Biggs to reject “attempts to rewrite the law and dictate University policy.” It said that the university has a “compelling interest in the educational benefits of racial diversity” and that it has “closely adhered to Supreme Court directives and constitutional requirements.”

The university said it does not set racial targets or quotas and uses race in a “narrowly tailored” fashion. “No reasonable fact-finder could conclude that race plays a dominant role in the University’s admissions process,” UNC argued in court documents.

UNC contends that race is one of many factors considered when reading an application. The university said it seeks to enroll “critical masses” of certain historically underrepresented minorities, such as African American, American Indian and Hispanic students.

In its argument, Students for Fair Admissions said UNC failed to prove that its use of race is constitutional. Too often, the plaintiff charged, white and Asian American applicants are penalized.

“UNC uses race mechanically to ensure the admission of the vast majority of underrepresented minorities,” the group charged. “And, had UNC properly studied the issue, it would have learned that … socioeconomic preferences, among other race-neutral alternatives, can achieve student body diversity.”

The plaintiff’s motion quoted evidence gleaned from admission documents that it said showed UNC was “keenly focused” on the race of applicants. One admissions officer noted, according to the plaintiff: “I’m going through this trouble because this is a bi-racial (black/white) male.” Another wrote in a file: “She is an AA [African American] female, with solid everything that adds up to an admit for me.”

UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt and Provost Robert A. Blouin wrote in an email to the campus: “Our admissions policies and practices comply with the spirit and letter of the law, and we will continue to vigorously defend our position in this nationally significant case.”

UNC is one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities. It has nearly 19,900 undergraduates, most of them from North Carolina. Federal data show that 62 percent of its undergraduates are white, 11 percent Asian American, 8 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic. Four percent are multiracial, and the rest are of unknown racial background or are international students.

The university received 43,472 applications for the class that entered in fall 2018. It offered admission to 9,519, or 22 percent.

The arguments in the lawsuit come as UNC has weathered scrutiny over the fate of a statue honoring Confederate soldiers, known as Silent Sam, that was recently removed from a prominent location on campus.

Many on campus saw Silent Sam as a monument to white supremacy and cheered when a crowd toppled the statue in August. The statue is in storage, with decisions pending on its future. Folt announced Monday that she had ordered the removal of the statue’s pedestal, citing safety concerns. Her action angered some on the UNC System Board of Governors. The board accepted Folt’s resignation, effective at the end of this month.

The remnants of the Confederate monument Silent Sam are gone. UNC’s chancellor will leave swiftly as well.