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Affirmative action advocates shocked — and thrilled — by Supreme Court’s ruling in University of Texas case

On Thursday, June 23, 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court voted, 4-3, to uphold an affirmative action ruling in the Fisher v. UT Austin case. It's a surprising win for affirmative action advocates. Here's what you need to know. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post, Photo: Charles Dharapak/The Washington Post)

The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday to uphold race-conscious college admissions came as a welcome surprise to many university officials and civil rights activists, who celebrated the ruling as essential to preserving and promoting diversity in higher education.

Advocates had feared that the court might rule that there was no longer a place for affirmative action in college admissions. Instead, Thursday’s 4-to-3 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas means that universities can continue using race as one of multiple factors in their admissions decisions.

Supreme Court upholds University of Texas affirmative action admissions

“This is a terrific comfort for higher education and the country,” said Peter McDonough, general counsel for the American Council on Education, a group representing college and university presidents. The court’s decision — which supported the notion that campus diversity can help students break down racial stereotypes and prepare for a diverse workforce — gives colleges great deference to determine their missions and identities, McDonough said, and thus to decide how to create their student bodies.

Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, hailed the court’s opinion as a victory for civil rights and all Americans, saying it offers a “clear path forward” for universities to consider race as they craft admissions policies.

“We are very gratified,” she said. “This decision finally gives universities a chance to move forward with this critically important effort that could never be more important than it is today in this country.”

Read: The Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision

The case before the court involved Abigail Fisher, a white student who challenged race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas after her application to the school was rejected.

Gregory L. Fenves, president of the University of Texas at Austin, tweeted his support for Thursday’s ruling.

“I am thrilled and gratified by today’s ruling,” Fenves said in a statement. “Our pursuit of excellence is grounded in the university’s public mission to provide the highest quality education for every student. Diversity is essential to carry out that mission.”

Wallace D. Loh, president of the University of Maryland at College Park, said he too was “thrilled” by the decision, which he said would allow Maryland to continue using race as one of 26 factors in admissions decisions. Maryland actively recruits in areas with high concentrations of minority students, he said, and more than 40 percent of freshmen in the last two years have identified as minorities.

“Race is a very important issue in our society and has always been,” Loh said. “We have to create equal opportunity for everyone. We should not rely on race solely, but as a factor to take into account in creating a more diverse, pluralistic society. And it begins with admission to selective institutions of higher education.”

The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reaffirmed the court’s support for the notion that diversity creates educational benefits for all students, not just those who have been marginalized in the past, said Francisco Negron of the National School Boards Association. That’s an important recognition that race-conscious admissions are not a special favor doled out to minority students, Negron said, but instead an effort to improve the experiences of all students.

“There’s an academic interest in diversity,” Negron said. “There’s a role that our schools play in trying to live in a diverse society.”

Not everyone was happy with Thursday’s decision, however. Edward Blum, president of the Project on Fair Representation, which supports Fisher, said he was “flabbergasted” by the decision. “What this opinion lacks in legal reasoning, it made up in contradictions,” Blum said in an interview, adding that Thursday’s opinion is at odds with the court’s previous decision in the long-running case, issued two years ago.

But in Blum’s view, the court’s opinion was written narrowly enough that it leaves a path forward for other challenges to college race-based admissions policies, including two pending cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Civil rights advocates disagreed, saying that the court’s clear and forceful reaffirmation of affirmative action means that future challenges face formidable obstacles.

Lawsuits allege unlawful bias in admissions at Harvard, UNC-Chapel Hill

University of North Carolina officials said they were heartened by Thursday’s decision. The court “reinforced the University’s ability to admit a student body as diverse and culturally rich as the society our students will go on to lead,” Rick White, associate vice chancellor for communications, said in a statement.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and self-described progressive, believes that the decision could hurt the prospects of low-income students, who are underrepresented on the nation’s campuses. By allowing the continued use of race as a factor in admissions, he argues, the court has discouraged colleges from finding other ways to promote diversity — such as through preferences for students who are poor.

Focusing solely on race means that colleges now admit students of many races who are mostly affluent, Kahlenberg said: Students from the richest quarter of the population outnumber students from the poorest quarter by 24 to 1, he said.

“Today’s decision seems to give universities more leeway to simply use race as a way to get racial diversity and ignore economically disadvantaged students,” he said. “If the decision had gone the other way, constraining the use of race, it would have led universities to address racial diversity via economic disadvantage — and now that’s less likely to happen.”