During Black History Month, Rutgers Law School Associate Professor Stacy Hawkins is called upon to discuss legal issues in diversity. She’ll be offering a legal analysis of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (Fisher II), a landmark challenge to the constitutionality of affirmative action in college and university admissions currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, with Rutgers Law School’s Federalist Society and during a public lecture for the Superior Court of New Jersey’s Camden Vicinage.According to Hawkins, what’s at stake in the eventual outcome of the most recent iteration of the case is whether colleges and universities may continue to engage in race-conscious admissions, and, if so, under what circumstances.
“Under prevailing law, race-conscious admissions plans are a permissible way for colleges and universities to achieve student body diversity so long as the plans are limited in various ways,” she says. “For instance, race may not predominate admissions decisions, and the use of race in admissions must be a temporary measure that colleges and universities continually seek to eliminate.”
The Rutgers Law professor points out that colleges and universities would like as much latitude as possible in designing race-conscious admissions plans to meet their individual institutional needs, but she acknowledges that so far the Supreme Court has not done a great job of defining the standards for assessing their use.
“The expectation of Fisher II is that the Court will give colleges and universities more concrete guidance in that regard, but the hope is that this guidance will not be overly rigid or so restrictive that colleges and universities are unable to craft race-conscious admissions plans reasonably designed to achieve the goal of student body diversity.”
In addition to closely following Fisher II, Hawkins is also paying attention to federal cases adjudicating diversity efforts in the employment context. “Particularly since the decision in Grutter, where the Supreme Court first approved of the interest in student body diversity in the higher education context, Federal circuit and district courts have been adjudicating the permissibility of workplace diversity efforts both in the private and public employment context. Many scholars believe that the Supreme Court will eventually also decide whether diversity efforts are permitted in the workplace. So I’m watching it closely.”
When asked if the social activism underway across the nation, namely Black Lives Matter, will impact the courts, Hawkins responded “this social activism, and the racial unrest that it represents, is directly relevant to the permissibility of diversity efforts in the context of higher education, where much of this social activism has originated.”
According to Hawkins, “in 2003, Justice O’Connor, writing for the majority in Grutter, predicted that perhaps in 25 years we would no longer need to pay attention to issues of racial equality and equal access in higher education.”
“There are at least another 12 years on that clock and, so long as we continue to experience the kind of racial unrest marked by the various student campus protests, the Court should continue to recognize the constitutional relevance of race, at least in higher education.”
To aspiring attorneys interested in working on legal issues involving diversity, Hawkins advises that they consider pursuing education law or employment law, two areas of legal practice where these issues commonly arise.