WASHINGTON — Abigail Fisher had a good academic record. But the university she had her heart set on, the one her father and sister had attended, rejected her.
"I was devastated," she said, in her first news interview since she was turned down by the University of Texas at Austin four years ago.
Fisher, 22, who is white and recently graduated from Louisiana State University, says that her race was held against her, and the Supreme Court is to hear her case today, bringing new attention to the combustible issue of the constitutionality of racial preferences in admissions decisions by public universities.
"I'm hoping," she said, "that they'll completely take race out of the issue in terms of admissions and that everyone will be able to get into any school that they want no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it."
The university said Fisher would not have been admitted even if race had played no role in the process, and it questioned whether she has suffered the sort of injury that gives her standing to sue. But the university's larger defense is that it must be free to assemble a varied student body as part of its academic and societal mission. The Supreme Court endorsed that view by a 5-4 vote in 2003 in Grutter vs. Bollinger.
University officials said that the school's affirmative action program was needed to build a student body diverse enough to include minority students with a broad range of backgrounds and for the campus to have a "critical mass" of minority students in most classrooms. Interaction among students in class and around campus, said Kedra Ishop, the university's director of admissions, helps students overcome biases and make contributions to a diverse society.
"The role of UT Austin is to provide leadership to the state," Ishop said.
The majority opinion in the Grutter case, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, rejected the use of racial quotas in admissions decisions but said that race could be used as one factor among many, as part of a "holistic review." O'Connor retired in 2006, and her replacement by Justice Samuel Alito may open the way for a ruling cutting back on such race-conscious admissions policies, or eliminating them.
Admissions officers at colleges and universities almost universally endorse the idea that students from diverse backgrounds learn from each other and overcome stereotypes and in so doing prepare themselves for leadership positions in society. Many critics of affirmative action say there is at best a weak correlation between race and having a range of views presented in the classroom.
Others say the Constitution does not permit the government to sort people by race, no matter how worthy its goal.
"While racial diversity on college campuses is beneficial, it cannot be attained by racial discrimination," said Edward Blum, an adviser to Fisher and a driving force behind the Fisher case.
Three-quarters of applicants from Texas are admitted under a program that guarantees admission to the top students in every high school in the state. (Almost everyone calls this the Top Ten program, although the percentage cutoff can vary. Fisher barely missed the cutoff.) The remaining Texas students and those from elsewhere are considered under standards that take account of academic achievement and other factors, including race and ethnicity.
The Top Ten program has produced substantial racial and ethnic diversity. In the fall of last year, freshmen who enrolled under the program were 26 percent Hispanic and 6 percent black. Texas is 38 percent Hispanic and 12 percent black.
The university said that the Top Ten program was a blunt instrument and that classes in many subjects have few or no minority students. It adds that the diversity generated by the Top Ten program is "mostly a product of the fact that Texas high schools remain highly segregated in regions of the state," which "limits the diversity that can be achieved within racial groups."
Fisher's lawyers say the university is making the pitch for "its preferred kind of minorities" at the expense of white students like Fisher with similar qualifications.
Nosa Aimuyo, whose parents are Nigerian immigrants and who was also admitted outside the Top Ten program, said race-conscious admissions were needed to address "disparities in opportunity between high schools, which disproportionately affect minorities."