OR: Ass'n of Christian Schs. Int'l v. Stearns, 362 Fed. Appx. 640 (9th Cir. 2010)
On April 21, 2009, the AAUP submitted an amicus brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in support of the admissions policies and practices of the University of California. The AAUP’s amicus brief highlights the critical faculty involvement in the course review that is at the heart of the university’s admissions decisions, and argues that the court should defer to the university’s admissions process on those grounds. The amicus brief also underscores the connection between faculty involvement in the governance of the university – including involvement in admissions standards – and academic freedom.
The University of California’s Academic Senate has had primary authority over undergraduate admissions policies since 1884. Under the current system, a committee of the Academic Senate is tasked with recommending criteria for undergraduate admissions. Each California high school that wishes its students to be able to apply to the university through the most common admissions process must submit its courses for an annual evaluation according to criteria established by the committee.
In August 2005, the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), along with a Christian high school and several of the high school’s students, sued the University of California, alleging that the university’s course approval process was unconstitutional. ACSI and the other plaintiffs argued that the university’s course review standards were biased against high school courses with any religious viewpoint or content, and that the university rejected a disproportionate number of courses with a religious basis. The plaintiffs therefore asserted that the university’s policies were unconstitutional – both on their face and as applied to the plaintiffs – in violation of the Free Speech, Free Exercise, and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In two separate decisions, one in March 2008 and one in August 2008, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled in favor of the university regarding both the facial and as-applied challenges. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the university’s admissions policies denied admissions credit to students on the grounds that their courses had religious viewpoints or content. Among other things, the district court observed that the university had in fact approved a number of high school courses that included religious viewpoints and materials, including science textbooks with a Christian concentration.
In January 2009, the plaintiffs appealed both district court decisions, arguing that the university’s rejection of more than 150 courses containing a single religious viewpoint was evidence that the university engaged in viewpoint and content discrimination. In response, the university has asserted that its challenged standards do not prevent schools from teaching any course they choose or students from taking any course they wish; that UC has denied course approval based not on the “addition” of a religious viewpoint but on the failure to teach key knowledge and analytical skills; that the university has approved many religious school classes; and that students can apply for admission on the basis of test scores and not have to show proficiency in approved high school courses.
The AAUP’s amicus brief urges the Ninth Circuit to affirm the district court’s decision that the university’s admission process is constitutional and emphasizes that faculty involvement in the university’s admissions process is crucial to academic freedom. As the brief asserts:
The academic freedom of universities is premised on the work carried out by their faculties, and protection of that freedom is therefore especially important where faculty members have had meaningful involvement in a university’s academic decisions. In this case, the plaintiffs’ claims challenge the University of California’s freedom to make basic educational judgments about the qualifications of potential students. Those educational judgments, which are the product of an academic decision-making process that is directed by faculty members applying their professional expertise, are entitled to deference by the courts.
A copy of the submitted amicus brief is available (.pdf). The university maintains a web page with extensive resources related to the case at http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/acsi-stearns/. The AAUP extends its appreciation to Stephen Sanders, at the law firm Mayer Brown LLP, whose pro bono assistance was instrumental in the drafting and submission of the amicus brief.
Update: On January 12, 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued an unpublished opinion (.pdf) affirming the district court. Although the opinion was brief, the court did affirm that the “essential freedoms” enjoyed by the University of California include the freedom to review high school courses “to ensure that they adequately prepare incoming students for the rigors of academic study at UC.”