With their own admissions policies on the line, institutions of higher education across the nation will watch the U.S. Supreme Court for a decision on whether the University’s admissions process is fair and legal.
When the Court issues a decision in lawsuits challenging the University’s consideration of race in admissions, it could resolve the patchwork legal precedent around the country that allows some universities to consider an applicant’s race and forbids others from doing so.
A ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld admissions policies that use race at the University of Washington. But the 5th and 11th circuit courts ruled similar standards at the universities of Texas and Georgia were unconstitutional.
Those three cases never reached the Supreme Court, leaving the University of Michigan cases as the focal point of the battle over race-conscious admissions policies.
“A Supreme Court decision would provide guidance to public and private universities across the country,” University Assistant General Counsel Jonathan Alger said. “It is an opportunity to make a decision that would affect institutions in all 50 states.”
The University of Texas, using court-mandated colorblind policies of admission since its legal battle, has seen its minority numbers drop, Texas Law Prof. Douglas Laycock said.
After decreasing by 90 percent in the first year after its policies were ruled unconstitutional, the admission of black students has gradually built up to half of their past level, he said.
“We’re looking for a national rule,” Laycock said. “Texas is a divided state on this issue, but certainly the faculty are looking for a Michigan win that would free us up to restore our plan.”
Procedural problems doomed the Texas appeal to the Supreme Court to failure, Laycock said. The appeals court never made a final judgment, passing the case back to a lower court.
“It’s really not until (the University of Michigan’s) case that there’s a square conflict between two final judgments,” for the universities of Michigan and Georgia, he said.
Students in the University of California at Berkeley’s chapter of the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary were energized by the announcement that the court would hear the cases, BAMN member and Berkeley graduate student Yvette Falarca said.
She said BAMN will mobilize students for demonstrations in Washington to make an impact on the case that could have important effects for the University of California’s admissions policy.
“A victory in this case would completely galvanize us here in California to restore affirmative action,” Falarca said. “It would be a real vindication of everything we are working for.”
Proposition 209, the successful California ballot initiative that in 1996 ended the use of race as a consideration in public university admissions policies, was initiated partly in response to the threat of legal challenges to the policies, Falarca said. A Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Michigan system would remove that threat and encourage Californians to reinstate race-conscious admissions.
Falarca said if the court strikes down the University’s policies, it “would be exposed in California and nationally as a body that is preparing to re-segregate the nation.”
The ruling upholding the University of Washington’s policies was rendered nearly moot when Initiative 200, another state ballot proposal forbidding the use of race in admissions, was passed in 1998.
Michael Madden, a lawyer who successfully defended the University of Washington against the legal challenges, said its standards were similar to the University of Michigan’s before Initiative 200 banned racial considerations.
“If you looked at the record in the two cases, there really is very little difference,” he said.