Politics & Government

UNC has spent $16.8 million on affirmative action lawsuit

A tour group of parents, future students and family members learn the history of UNC’s Old Well on the Chapel Hill campus.
A tour group of parents, future students and family members learn the history of UNC’s Old Well on the Chapel Hill campus. News & Observer file photo

UNC-Chapel Hill has spent $16.8 million on legal fees and expenses related to a lawsuit challenging the university’s use of race in admissions.

The bills were released to The News & Observer on Friday through a public records request and cover a period from February of 2015 through July of this year.

In late 2014, a group called Students for Fair Admissions filed federal lawsuits against UNC and Harvard, challenging affirmative action practices of the two universities. The suit against UNC claims that the university considers race not as merely a plus factor but as a dominant factor in admissions decisions, to the detriment of white and Asian-American applicants.

The cases are being watched closely in higher education and could ultimately set precedent for affirmative action policies across the country.

According to UNC billing records, the university has spent $12.4 million in legal fees to the New York firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. That’s one of the law firms that has represented UNC on matters related to the academic and athletic scandals.

Other expenses included $4.1 million in data collection and analysis by two consulting firms — San Francisco-based Cornerstone Research and Boston-headquartered Charles River Associates. Another firm, Rust Consulting, was hired to notify more than 60,000 past applicants that their data, without names attached, would be submitted to the court for the lawsuit.

The university also hired three experts, spending about $224,000. The experts were: Bridget Long, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Mitchell Chang, professor of education at UCLA; and Jeffrey Milem, dean of the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at University of California Santa Barbara.

“These ongoing costs reflect the extreme demands of a highly significant national case as we vigorously defend our admissions practice,” said a statement released Friday by the university. “In response to the plaintiffs’ requests and to defend our position, we have produced tens of thousands of documents and admissions records in the discovery phase alone that have contributed to the cost of this multi-year lawsuit.”

The case could drag on for some time. The Harvard case has been in the headlines this summer after public disclosure of admissions data. The New York Times reported in June that the data showed that Harvard had ranked Asian-American applicants lower on personality traits.

At issue in the UNC case is the contention by the plaintiff that the university has not adhered to the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance on affirmative action, that race should be considered only under “strict scrutiny,” with race-neutral alternatives preferable. That language was put forth by the court in the case of Fisher vs. University of Texas.

The plaintiff in the UNC case was an 18-year-old white male North Carolinian, as previously reported in The News & Observer. According to the lawsuit, he was rejected despite credentials that included a 4.4839 weighted grade point average, a 1510 SAT score, a 32 on the ACT and five Advanced Placement credits.

The lawsuit contends there are large disparities in the academic profiles among different racial and ethnic groups.

The university has said repeatedly it stands by its admissions practices and will defend them in court.

“The plaintiffs have made false claims, and the lawsuit threatens our academic mission and could adversely affect U.S. public higher education,” said the statement released Friday by the university. “We make admissions decisions lawfully and holistically, applicant by applicant, considering everything we know about each student. That process provides students who choose Carolina with a diverse and enriched academic environment that prepares them for future success.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill
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