The nation’s highest judicial
authority has reaffirmed the importance of diversity in the most
significant civil rights case the U.S. Supreme Court has faced in a
quarter century. Despite the spin coming from those opposed to the
University’s policies that these opinions are a mixed bag and
a minor victory, there is little doubt that the University —
and more importantly those who have been fighting for equal
opportunity and social equality — emerge victorious.

In its opinions for two cases, Gratz v. Bollinger and
Grutter v. Bollinger, which the court heard together, a
majority of the nine justices upheld the legal precedent
established by the high court in 1978 in the case of University
of California Board of Regents v. Bakke
. According to this
precedent, a university may use race as a factor in the admissions
process because diversity is a “compelling state
interest.” Even though the court ruled that the College of
Literature, Science and the Arts was using an unconstitutional
method of creating a diverse student body, the victory in
Grutter, the Law School case, clearly provides universities
across the country with the court’s approval to continue to
use race-conscious admissions policies.

 

Until yesterday’s decision, the fate
of affirmative action in the nation’s institutes of higher
education was in question. In 1996 in the case of Hopwood v.
Texas
, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals banned the use of
race-conscious admissions policies by universities. This move
required universities in the 5th Circuit to look for other methods
of maintaining a diverse student body. One of these substitutes for
affirmative action was the so-called “10-percent plan,”
which President Bush has championed. In addition, under the
leadership of Ward Connerly, California voters passed Proposition
209, which outlawed the use of affirmative action in the California
university system. Because the University defended the principle of
affirmative action and the value of diversity in higher education,
affirmative action is on stronger footing today — a
development that is good not only for universities nationwide, but
for the nation as a whole.

In the opinions, the majority of the court’s justices
rejected the pessimistic and illogical reasoning put forth by
Justice Antonin Scalia that the University should be forced to
choose between having elite schools and having diverse schools.
While many minorities do face tremendous disadvantages in the
United States, these can be overcome in part by providing them with
access to the nation’s elite institutions. Subscribing to a
line of thinking that does not believe the nation’s social
ills can be repaired makes a mockery of the title
“Justice” that precedes Scalia’s name.

While the court’s decision to strike down the LSA
admissions system is a minor setback for the University, President
Mary Sue Coleman has already stated that the college will adjust
its admissions policies in order to adhere to the court’s
opinion. It is essential that the University’s legal team,
faculty, administrators and admissions staff promptly begin to
reformulate these policies so that the number of minority students
attending the schools that until now have used point systems does
not drastically decrease. The University must also welcome input
from the student body as it undergoes this process. Student
involvement in this process is crucial in order to maintain
fairness and confidence in the new system.

 

Upon closer examination of the
repercussions that this decision will have, it is important to
avoid getting caught up and being blinded by the positive attitude
that the University’s supporters are articulating. The role
of affirmative action in society remains tenuous. If Justice Sandra
Day O’Connor were to retire this year, as some observers
expect, the replacement that Bush appoints could tip the
court’s majority against affirmative action. Even more likely
is that opponents of affirmative action will employ the strategy
that they used in California to outlaw affirmative action in a
statewide, popular referendum. While the court has found
affirmative action to be both constitutional and legal at the
federal level, states may still act to outlaw its use. In order to
prevent this from occurring on a wide scale, supporters of
affirmative action must mount a powerful defense of these policies
and describe their importance to the future of the country.

The court also wrote that, while the policies that the Law
School uses in order to create a diverse student body are
constitutional at this time, it expects such policies to no longer
be necessary in 25 years. Undoing the social and economic
inequities between the races that have developed over hundreds of
years in such a short period of time is an ambitious goal and one
that will take a great deal of effort to achieve.

Supporters of affirmative action would be mistaken to rest on
their laurels in the wake of this victory. Rather, civil rights
activists should view this ruling as a call to action. The time has
come to end the historic injustices based on skin color that have
blemished the American story since it began. The work of fixing the
country’s institutions of higher learning and in turn of
power and influence will prove to be much more difficult than
achieving this narrow victory in the Supreme Court. —Jun.
24, 2003

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