The Supreme Court on Thursday said University of Texas admission officials may consider the race of student applicants in a limited way to build a diverse student body.

The 4-to-3 decision was a surprising win for advocates of affirmative action, who say the benefits of diversity at the nation’s colleges and universities are worth the intrusion on the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection that generally forbids the government from making decisions based on racial classifications.

“The University of Texas at Austin has a special opportunity to learn and to teach” others about how to achieve diversity, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

Kennedy had never before voted to uphold a race-conscious plan, but he also had been reluctant to say race may never be used. He was joined by three of the courts liberal justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself.

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