AUSTIN, Texas — More than a half-century after the Supreme Court ordered the University of Texas to admit a black man to its law school, the sprawling live-oak-and-limestone campus is again the site of a monumental battle over the use of race in university admissions.
But this time the challenge comes from a white woman. Abigail Fisher says the color of her skin cost her a spot in the 2008 freshman class at the university she had longed to attend since she was a child.
Under the banner of racial diversity, Fisher contends, the UT admissions process, which considers race as a factor in choosing one quarter of its students, unfairly favors African-Americans and Hispanics at the expense of whites and Asian Americans.
"If any state action should respect racial equality, it is university admission," Fisher said in her brief to the Supreme Court. "Selecting those who will benefit from the limited places available at universities has enormous consequences."
Enormous, too, could be the consequences of Fisher's case for the nation's selective universities, public and private. If the court rules broadly, college administrators could be barred from considering race in admissions.
Arguments in the case are scheduled for next month, and the decision could be one of the most important and revealing of the Supreme Court's term that begins Monday.
The court since 1978 has recognized that promoting diversity on the nation's campuses allows a limited consideration of race that normally the Constitution would not countenance.
UT president William Powers said that his admissions policies hew carefully to the guidelines of the Supreme Court's 2003 decision and that applicants of every race may benefit from the individualized treatment.
The only goal, he said in an interview, is to create a university environment where students are "learning and drawing from and sharing their experiences with people from different backgrounds, and that's diversity writ large - geographic diversity, intellectual diversity, ethnic diversity, religious diversity."
"We're trying to prepare them educationally for the world they're going to live in," he said.
During class changes on the 52,000-student campus, UT's diversity is on full display
The sidewalks and bike paths at UT are filled with students of every ethnic group and hue: hipster plaid and mohawks, Greek-letter T-shirts and Longhorn burnt orange, sundresses and cowboy boots.
"That's the beauty of UT," said Kristin Thompson, 22, a civil engineering major from a Dallas suburb. "It's a place that encourages you to find your niche and socialize with people who have similar interests as you, but also challenges you to be amongst people who have different views, different backgrounds, different opinions from your own."
It is one of the most diverse major universities in the country: In the incoming freshman class, the largest in UT history, 46 percent are white, 24 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian American and 5 percent black.