When lawyers argue Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, it'll be just another morning on the campus at the heart of the nation's most closely watched affirmative action case.
“I think there are pockets of knowledge — certainly groups of students who are very invested in what’s happening,” said UT-Austin associate professor Richard Reddick, who’s also an administrator for the school's Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. “But I think there’s also, you know, ‘Fisher fatigue.’”
‘Fisher fatigue’ may be the main reason the case isn’t the talk of the campus. The case has been working its way through the federal court system longer than most undergraduates have been at the university.
Abigail Fisher sued the school in 2008, saying she was denied admission because she is white. UT-Austin uses race as one factor in admission decisions, saying that consideration is necessary for the school to have a diverse, representative student body.
Fisher's case has already reached the Supreme Court once. In that iteration, the court upheld the use of affirmative action nationwide but asked a lower court to specifically scrutinize UT-Austin's policy. The lower court has since upheld how the school weighs race in admissions decisions, and the Supreme Court is reviewing that ruling.
On the eve of arguments in the case, Catherine Li, a senior from Houston, told The Texas Tribune she’d never heard of Abigail Fisher and didn’t know UT was involved in any court cases at all. “I don’t really follow politics,” she said. Bryan Tamayo, a sophomore from Dallas, said he remembered seeing “a lot of tweets” about a girl who was “appealing her rejection” but said he didn’t know the Supreme Court had gotten involved.
“My department, my friends, we aren’t talking about that — we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, those kinds of movements, because that’s such a dominant force on campus right now,” said Ashlee Bardin, a junior from Leander. “This is just some girl throwing a hissy fit, as far as I’m concerned.”
Campus reaction was notably different when the Supreme Court heard Fisher’s case the first time, in October 2012. One group, “We Support UT,” was created by students involved in the Multicultural Engagement Center specifically to teach students about the case and about holistic admissions generally, according to Jennifer Tran, one of the group's original coordinators. Tran, who graduated in May, said the group hosted town halls, teach-ins and Q&As over the course of the 2012-2013 school year to educate people about the particulars of the case and spark conversation about campus racial issues more generally.
“We had a lot of campus activity centered around those efforts,” Tran said. “We wanted to bring attention to the case.”
The week before those oral arguments, the group held a town hall conversation with representatives from a variety of legal defense funds for minority issues, Tran said.
There was no comparable event his time around — and "We Support UT" is no longer active.
UT senior Danielle Smith, public relations officer for UT’s Black Students Association, said she's also noticed a decline in interest.
“I think the first time the Supreme Court heard the Fisher case, there was a lot more involvement — it sparked a lot of activism,” Smith said. Now, she said, BSA members still know about the case but are focused on other racial issues on campus.
It's been a busy year for campus activists looking to spark dialogue about the minority experience. In August, after student protests, the university removed its statue of confederate President Jefferson Davis. In October, black students from the Society for Cultural Unity confronted UT President Greg Fenves at an event hosted by the student newspaper, asking if he felt black lives mattered.
When it comes to issues of campus diversity, students haven't tuned out — they've just “switched their attention,” Reddick, the professor, said.
“I imagine a lot of the students who would’ve been very concerned about Fisher are invested in what’s happening at Mizzou, with Black Lives Matter,” he said. “This discourse might not be as interesting.”
The fact that it’s currently exam week at UT-Austin might have something to do with it too, he added: “That timing wasn’t great.”
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.