Students for Fair Admissions (“SFFA”) v. University of North Carolina et al (“UNC”)

In November 2014 – just a few days after filing suit against Harvard University – SFFA sued the University of North Carolina over its use of race-conscious admissions policies.  The suit alleged three specific violations of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964:  (1) that UNC ‘s undergraduate admissions office discriminated on the basis of race; (2) that it used race as more than simply a ‘plus’ factor in admissions decisions; and (3) that UNC failed to use race-neutral alternatives that could achieve its reasonable diversity objectives.

The UNC suit was different from the “sister” suit against Harvard in a few ways.  First, UNC is a public university, while Harvard is a private institution. This meant that SFFA alleged a 14th Amendment “equal protection” violation against UNC, a claim that was not available in the Harvard suit since Harvard is a private institution and a 14th Amendment claim requires a “state actor.”

Second, the plaintiffs believe, and argue, that data produced in discovery has clearly shown, that UNC uses very large racial preferences in admissions – larger than those alleged at Harvard.  For example, Peter Arcidiacono, an SFFA expert in both cases, found that an applicant with credentials about in the middle of the “accepted” range had a 25% chance of admission to Harvard if she were Asian-American, but a 95% change of admission if she were African-American.  For UNC out-of-state applicants, Arcidiacono found that an applicant with credentials in the middle of the accepted range had a 3% chance of admission if she were Asian-American, but a 98% chance of admission if she were African-American.

Third, it was known at the time SFFA filed its suit that UNC had engaged in analysis, and released a report, examining the feasibility of achieving a diverse student body through race-neutral methods (this was not true of Harvard).  SFFA suspected, and its expert Richard Kahlenberg believes he has since shown, that UNC could achieve greater socioeconomic diversity and similar racial diversity as its current undergraduate student body, by using non-racial criteria on the socioeconomic and educational environments of its applicants.

Like the Harvard case, SFFA v. UNC has delved much further into the admissions data, and has made much greater use of econometric experts, than any of the earlier cases about racial preferences in higher education.

As matters currently stand the District Court has completed its bench trial but has not yet issued an opinion.