Using race as an admissions factor is constitutional, but only through the approach taken by the Law School’s admissions policy, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote this morning. The court accepted the University’s argument that the need for a diverse student body justifies race-conscious admissions in the Law School case, but it overturned the College of Literature, Science and the Arts’ policy of granting points for race by a 6-3 vote.
Writing for the majority in the Law School case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found that the need for diversity justifies using race as an admissions factor, thus rejecting the claims made by the plaintiffs and the Center for Individual Rights which represented them – that race should never be considered as an admissions factor.
“Because universities, and in particular law schools, represent the training ground for a large number of the Nation’s leaders … the path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” her opinion states.
Regarding the Law School policy, O’Connor found that it “engages in a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to all the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment. … The program adequately ensures that all factors that may contribute to diversity are meaningfully considered alongside race.”
But writing for the majority in the LSA case, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that “the only consideration that accompanies the 20-point automatic distribution to all applicants from underrepresented minorities is a factual review to determine whether an individual is a member of one of these minority groups. … The LSA’s 20-point distribution has the effect of making ‘the factor of race … decisive’ for virtually every minimally qualified underrepresented minority applicant.”
Despite the split decision, University President Mary Sue Coleman called the ruling “a tremendous victory” for the University and all institutions of higher education. “The court sent a clear message today that affirmative action may be used in our admissions policies,” she said during a press conference conducted by telephone.
“The court has provided two important signals. The first is a green light to pursue diversity in the college classroom. The second is a road map to get us there,” Coleman said.
Although the court’s ruling forces the University to modify the LSA admissions policy, Coleman said the University will “find the route that continues our commitment to a richly diverse student body.”
The court has provided the University with a “road map” for revising the LSA policy, stressing the need for a more individualized review process, Coleman said.
“We really don’t anticipate much difficulty in coming up with a new process,” she said. “We believe we can do this. We’re not concerned about it at all.”
Coleman added that the new policy should be ready by this fall, and that the ruling would not affect incoming freshmen.
Terrence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which represented the plaintiff, also called the ruling a victory for opponents of affirmative action at a press teleconference.
“Today’s ruling is a mixed decision that signals the beginning of the end for race-based admissions,” he said “Today’s ruling was another victory for opponents of affirmative action…because it signals a trend downward,” he said.
The ruling leaves schools with “a slight crack” for using racial plus factors, requiring them to conduct a “good faith assessment” of all applicants, he said.
Pell added that now voters will be able to pass statewide ballot initiatives that ban further use of race-conscious admissions, such as those already passed in California and Washington. “The Supreme Court doesn’t have the final word. States on their own can considered (that a policy) like the Law School system … is a bad system,” he said.
Media polls have shown that nine of out 10 people oppose race-based admissions, Pell added.
Michigan State University law Prof. Frank Ravitch said the ruling is a definitive approval of the use of race in admissions policies, although he added that the decision only extends to higher education institutions. “You now have a clear majority of the court saying diversity can be a compelling state interest,” Ravitch said.
The court’s 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, banned racial quotas but Justice Lewis Powell wrote a concurring opinion stating that race could be used as one of many admissions factors. But some legal analysts and CIR had questioned whether Powell’s opinion spoke for the majority of the court.
University of California at Berkeley law Prof. Robert Post said he expected the court to rule only one policy constitutional. “I think the point from the Court’s point of view is to send a tactical message. The court’s message is affirmative action is constitutional, but suspect,” he said.
One interesting point of O’Connor’s opinion is that she writes that the court expects race-conscious admissions policies to be unnecessary in 25 years.
Post said the clause is not an official deadline but more of an additional restriction on the use of racial plus factors. “Putting a number of years is a little unusual, and I don’t think it stands for a drop-dead day.”
The ruling may open the way for schools like the University of Texas and the University of Georgia – schools that have had their race-conscious admissions policies overturned by federal courts – to reinstate racial plus factors into their policies. Ravitch said the ruling will allow them to do that, but their policies should be modeled after the individualized review used by the Law School.
Several student groups also held a press conference at the Diag.
“Affirmative action has been upheld, Bakke has been deemed good and we move forward today knowing that we are moving in the right direction,” Michigan Student Assembly President Angela Galardi said. “The Court upheld the principle while critiquing the process.”
But recent University graduate James Justin Wilson, a former editor of The Michigan Review, said diversity is not an excuse for racism. “This is the worst decision. … It leaves a very ambiguous precedent in Bakke. Now they won’t tell us how they create a class – the transparency is gone.”
O’Connor was joined in her Law School opinion by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, while Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy dissented.
In the LSA case, Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Breyer voted against the policy. Stevens, Souter and Ginsberg dissented in that opinion.
The decision is the most significant for higher education since the Bakkeruling, and it also ends the University’s admissions saga, which began in 1997 when three rejected applicants – Barbara Grutter, Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher – sued the Law School and LSA for their race-conscious admission policies.
During the past year the two cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, have gripped the attention of much of the nation, including thousands of students, numerous corporations, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and even President Bush, who denounced the policies as disguised quotas in a address to the nation.
Today Bush issued a statement in which he praised the court for “recognizing the value of diversity on our Nation’s campuses. … Today’s decisions seek a careful balance between the goal of campus diversity and the fundamental principle of equal treatment under the law. My administration will continue to promote policies that expand educational opportunities for Americans from all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.”
The Michigan Daily will be providing updated coverage of this monumental decision throughout the day on this website. The decision will be available in print in tomorrow’s Daily.