A Supreme Court decision in October could forbid or significantly alter race as a consideration in college admissions when the court hears an appeal from a white student in Texas who hopes to end "racial preferences" in admissions.
While the Supreme Court has been split over the issue for more than three decades, UW-Madison political science Professor Donald Downs said given the slight conservative majority among the court's justices, it is likely they will strike down affirmative action as it currently exists.
He said while four of the nine justices will almost certainly strike down any racial consideration in college admissions, the court's four liberal judges will uphold it. The decision, Downs said, ultimately rests with the vote of the traditionally more unpredictable justice, Anthony Kennedy.
"In 2007, Kennedy went with the four conservatives," Downs pointed out. "So it is likely the Supreme Court will go that way."
Still, even if history repeats itself, Downs said the ruling might not have as big of an effect on UW-Madison as it may seem.
"The court is going to have two choices here," he said. "One, they can say you shouldn't consider race at all. Or they can say in this situation it's okay to have race be one of these other factors so long as it doesn't end up playing too big of a factor on its own."
The latter, called "class-based" affirmative action, gives preference in college admissions to all students of lower socioeconomic status regardless of race. In this case, Downs said race often correlates with lower income households so it would not significantly impact UW-Madison's current admissions process.
Multicultural Student Coalition Executive Althea Miller said while she does not support a change from current admissions policy, she is not necessarily opposed to class-based affirmative action.
"Underrepresented folks are disproportionally in lower socioeconomic statuses," Miller said. "Defaulting to [class-based affirmative action] would help those majority folks who feel like they've been left behind, and perhaps those folks who cry reverse discrimination."
This is the second time this academic year UW-Madison has faced a threat to its current admissions policy, which factors race in its admissions decisions. In September, a conservative think tank, called the Center for Equal Opportunity alleged the university's admissions policy discriminates against white and Asian students by giving preferential treatment to black and Hispanic students.
Now, Miller said the proposed lawsuit brought back unpleasant memories of September, during which she said she and many of her minority peers felt their culture was under attack.
"I just started to think about a lot of the students' of colors feelings as though their race didn't matter," she said. "In terms of ability, race doesn't matter. But when it comes to a lineage and history of people and seeing someone for who they are and the rich culture they've inherited, race does matter."
UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward supports the university's admissions policies, saying that racial diversity on campus prepares students for a competitive and increasingly "multicultural world."
"Academic preparation has always been and will always be the most important factor," Ward said in a statement in October. "But we look carefully at the students behind those numbers."
Downs said if the court votes to forbid college admissions' consideration of an applicants' race, the impact on the university would be unclear.
"If they took race out of it entirely, [UW-Madison] would have to change [its admissions process] a little bit and it would probably have some impact, but it is unclear if that impact would be large," he said.