UNC is a major research university that strives to create and disseminate new knowledge. As the nation’s first public university, we exist also to nurture the next generation of leaders for our state, region, and nation. To achieve this dual mission, we need individual students who are smart, hard-working, and good-hearted. But we also need a student body that gives each of these students the chance to learn how to lead in a society that grows more diverse day by day. 

Our admissions practices serve this public mission. In 2011, UNC selected an entering class of 3,914 students from 29,486 applicants. We did so by assessing each candidate on more than forty criteria, grouped in areas such as academic performance and program, standardized testing, extracurricular achievement, special talent, clarity and depth of expression, and other personal attributes, including race.

Our nuanced consideration of race is grounded in our academic judgment and our well-tested experience that racial diversity improves the education of all our students. A growing body of evidence confirms that students learn better when they learn alongside talented classmates from different races and backgrounds. In our judgment, this is true whether the subject is business or English, chemistry or public health. But it is especially true when the subject, whether expressed or implied, is leadership, and when the lessons will be applied in a state whose past was divided along the color line and whose future will be increasingly multicultural.

Like the University of Texas, UNC once barred admission to students of color. But over the years, we have come to understand what the Court first recognized in 1950 in Sweatt v. Painter, confirmed in 1978 in Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke, and reaffirmed in 2003 in Grutter v. Bollinger: that classroom diversity has an essential educational value, and that race-conscious college admissions are vital for achieving the compelling interest of preparing graduates to meet the challenges they will face. 

Abigail Fisher would have the Court break with decades of precedent faithfully followed by universities across the country, and restrict efforts to achieve diversity to mechanical systems such as Texas’s Top Ten Percent Plan, under which a share of top-ranked students from Texas secondary schools are guaranteed admission. This blunt tool ignores the unique potential of each applicant and depends upon shameful patterns of segregation at the secondary-school level. Such a plan would significantly compromise our ability to fulfill our mission by excluding many students, both white and non-white, who we think have the greatest potential to thrive as scholars on our campus and as leaders far beyond.

We object to a percentage plan because we believe that “critical mass” — a key term in affirmative-action litigation that the Court has used as a shorthand description of the goal of such programs — is principally a qualitative, not a quantitative, value. That belief has found empirical support in the Educational Diversity Project Study recently published by UNC faculty. This study demonstrates a clear and positive relationship between racial diversity and educational benefit, and more accurately describes the goal of admissions practices like UNC’s as “meaningful diversity.” As reaffirmed in Grutter and the lower courts that rejected Ms. Fisher’s case, and as demonstrated empirically in the EDP study, a holistic admissions process in which race plays a modest role remains the most effective, realistic, and individualized way to achieve meaningful diversity. Anything less conflicts with the mission of our universities to educate, train and best serve the next generation of our nation’s leaders.

Farmer is vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.