Since 2008, the University of Texas has been ensnared in a legal battle – Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin – over its use of race in admissions.
The university says when it comes to deciding whether to accept or reject a student, race is considered as a factor within a factor. But once a student is accepted, what impact does diversity have on the students' learning on campus and in the classroom?
The women of UT student organization Umoja are a vibrant group. The group gets its name from the Swahili word for unity – a value they aim to promote on campus. UT Senior Shontoria Walker has been a member of Umoja for over three years. She says the group has helped her through obstacles she faced as a minority student.
"Sitting in a classroom in my first year, chemistry, 300 people, I’m the only African-American," Walker says.
Currently, nearly half of UT students are white. The largest minority groups are Hispanics at 19 percent, Asians at about 15 percent and African-Americans at 4.5 percent.
The first step to creating a positive campus environment? According to Dr. Gregory Vincent, vice president of UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement, it's making sure minority students succeed academically,
"Students having good experiences, you can see students involved in campus leadership and campus life, those things are important," Vincent says. "Hiring diverse faculty who offer diverse teaching and research opportunities are some of the ways that we can measure our success."
Kevin Cokley is a professor in UT’s Department of Educational Psychology. He says "having diversity among students usually means having a diversity of opinions, a diversity of perspectives and experiences, and it invariably results in a much richer discussion."
But others say race policies have no place in the classroom environment. UT Law Professor Lino Graglia argues that diversity initiatives like affirmative action lower the quality of education that students receive.
"I mean you think [diversity] is going to make a difference in math and chemistry?" he says. "Is it going to make a difference in studying criminal law? And what if you have to get this diversity by using racial preferences – that is, by admitting people who are less qualified? Is that going to really add to the educational experience?"
Graglia says minority students who benefit from affirmative action are held to lower admissions standards than non-minorities. He says considering race at all gives minorities an unfair, unconstitutional advantage and gives them access to schools for which they are not fully qualified.
But Walker says without considering race, she doesn't think UT would have given her a chance.
"My name is Shontoria Walker," she says. "It is, I feel like, an ethnic name. I feel like if it wasn’t for [affirmative action], I feel like nobody would have even opened my letter."
She says affirmative action may have helped her get into UT – but her hard work that has kept her on track to graduate this December.
As UT awaits further ruling on Fisher, administrators are working to help students feel welcome on the Forty Acres. In spring 2012, the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement surveyed students in the College of Fine Arts on issues of diversity and campus culture. 86 percent say it's important to be exposed to diversity to succeed professionally.
"Our goal is for each college and school and administrative unit – that they all have a diversity committee and a diversity plan that’s customized to their goals so that we can make sure that that’s being integrated into the life at the local level," Vincent says.
Vincent hopes the comprehensive diversity plan will be executed campus-wide within the next four years. As for the Fisher case, on Nov. 13, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in the case.