Since 2006, the University of Michigan has been running what it calls a “natural experiment” in race-neutral admissions. Following a 2006 statewide vote that banned affirmative action in the state’s public universities, the University radically shifted its admissions procedures for the first time since 1963 by removing race from the admission process. On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court will hear the lawsuits brought by Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action organization challenging racially informed admissions practices at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.
In an amicus brief in support of Harvard and UNC, the University of Michigan argued the practice of ‘race blind’ admissions has failed.
In the past 16 years, the percentage of Black students at the University has decreased from 7% to 4%. The percentage of Native American students dropped from 1 to 0.11 percent, a 90% reduction.
History of Affirmative Action: 1978-Present
In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled against racial quotas employed by the University of California Davis Medical School in Board of Regents v. Bakke. These quotas limited the number of students from each racial group that could be admitted to the school. However, Justice Lewis Powell wrote that using race as a criteria in admissions could be permissible if it were one of several criteria. The Court in Bakke ruled that using race as “one factor among many” is constitutional under the 14th Amendment, which provides all citizens equal protection under the law.
In 2003, the University of Michigan Law School programs made headlines in the Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger. Barbara Grutter, a white resident of Michigan and law school applicant, sued the Law School after she was denied admission. The court analyzed her case using the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in educational programs receiving Federal funding. With a majority opinion by former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the Law School’s admissions practices were constitutional under the Bakke decision. The undergraduate admissions practices, which utilized a “point system” providing explicit benefits to minority groups, were ruled unconstitutional in Gratz v. Bollinger, decided the same year.
University of Michigan law professor Michelle Adams said O’Connor’s opinion emphasized the “compelling state interests” of consideration of race in admissions practices.
“If there’s no exposure to a wider variety of individuals and viewpoints, those individuals are not going to be able to lead with any kind of authority, and it’s going to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the leadership class that gets created,” Adams said.
Michigan voters passed Proposal 2 in 2006, banning all affirmative action in the state’s public universities. In 2014, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Proposal 2 in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.
Affirmative Action in Today’s Supreme Court
In anticipation of the Harvard and UNC cases, the University of Michigan filed its amicus brief, saying it has had difficulty cultivating racial diversity without affirmative action.
The amicus brief cited a decrease in racial diversity on campus since affirmative action was banned in the state of Michigan in 2006. The brief says the University supports the consideration of race in the admissions process.
“U-M’s experience thus represents a natural experiment in race-neutral admissions that this Court should consider in determining whether efficacious race-neutral alternatives are in fact available to Harvard, UNC, or other institutions of higher education,” the brief reads. “U-M’s experience underscores that the limited consideration of race is necessary to obtain the educational benefits of racial diversity.”
Adams said the University’s attempt to increase diversity and maintain a selective admissions process has proved difficult without affirmative action.
“The natural experiment is what happens when a university is deeply committed to racial diversity but can’t use race as a factor, and also wants to maintain a very competitive, very selective school,” Adams said. “And notwithstanding the sort of rather Herculean efforts the University has taken, African Americans and Native American numbers have dropped, and they’ve dropped dramatically.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Evan Caminker, former dean of the University of Michigan Law School and current U-M law professor, said it is likely the Supreme Court will ban affirmative action come October. Caminker said stare decisis, the idea that the Court should decide cases based on precedent, may be overcome if the justices believe a case was wrongly decided.
“The momentum has generally been going against affirmative action in the Supreme Court for a long time,” Caminker said. “The case from June that overruled Roe v. Wade makes very clear that the conservative majority of the Court isn’t all that worried about stare decisis if they really believe the case has been wrongly decided. I think it’s likely that there are six members of the court now who would say that affirmative action should be held to violate the constitution.”
Caminker said the consequences of a national affirmative action ban will have little impact in Michigan because of the existing state ban. However, this ruling could have a significant impact on diversity and access to higher education across the country.
“In my view, it’s very troubling,” Caminker said. “What it would mean is that a lot of selective universities, at least at the top level, like Harvard, would probably end up enrolling far fewer disadvantaged and minority groups than they do now.”
UMich and Affirmative Action
In the last 15 years, the University has employed programs aimed at increasing diversity and inclusion on campus, such as the Wolverine Pathways program, the Go Blue Guarantee scholarship and the Michigan College Advising Corps. Despite these programs, minority presence on campus has continued to drop.
Caminker said some potential applicants from minority groups see an education at the University as out of reach in the current admissions climate.
“There’s a lot of underrepresented minority individuals, for example, who just assume, wrongly, that they can’t get into a school like Michigan, or assume that they couldn’t possibly afford it, or assume that they wouldn’t want to go to a school like Michigan because they might feel like they’re the only minority students in each of their classes,” Caminker said.
Caminker stated that without affirmative action, the University is less likely to make substantial progress.
“All of these are difficulties Michigan has faced in trying to recruit even the students who actually are fully capable of being accepted and excelling here, but it’s a huge effort,” Caminker said. “So the University has put that huge, huge effort into it, and I think that’s reflected by the fact that the numbers are a bit better now than they were in 2006, but I don’t think they’re up at all to the place where they would be if the University were able to take race into account.”
As the Harvard and UNC cases reignite discussions of affirmative action, the campus community has weighed in on admissions policies and their impact on potential and current students.
LSA junior Matthew Zhou, chairman of College Republicans speaking on behalf of himself, said he believes it is unfair to consider race in the admissions process, and the University should instead prioritize dedicating resources to eradicating inequality in lower levels of education.
“Now, obviously, I am a believer in equality … it is valid to question whether or not some races have advantages going into the process, but I think it is more important to address that from a lower level, like from early education and even parental resources, so that makes sure that when people get to the age … where they’re going to college, or going to university, I think it shouldn’t matter,” Zhou said.
Kyra Shahid, Director of the Trotter Multicultural Center, said regardless of access to affirmative action, the University must continue its devotion to diversity and equity in its curricula and extracurricular programming.
“As the University works to be more diverse, we have to be working to make sure we’re more equitable, and I’m not sure that affirmative action in those policies has to be the end all be all to how we do that,” Shahid said. “So no matter what the decision is, our commitment to equity should drive the types of programs that we have, the speakers that we invite and the way we’re revolutionizing curriculum in the classroom.”
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