The saga of the University’s affirmative action policies which has been percolating for over five years will now reach its conclusion before the nation’s highest court. With yesterday’s Supreme Court decision to hear both Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, the court will be the final arbiter of the University’s admissions model. In granting certiorari for the cases, the court has agreed to resolve the conflicting affirmative action decisions in the 5th, 6th. 9th and 11th Circuit Courts. Judge Lewis Powell’s murky opinion in the Bakke case can now be elucidated and an unambiguous set of admission guidelines can be established across the nation. When the justices issue their opinions in June, the court’s 25 year silence on the role of race in the admissions process will end and the future of higher education in the United States will begin.
Following the University’s victory in the 6th Circuit’s ruling on Grutter, the University argued that it would be best if the Supreme Court did not hear the case. In choosing this course of action, the University shirked its responsibility to the academic institutions across the nation that were dependent on a Supreme Court victory for affirmative action. As the University’s cases snaked their way through the federal courts, other prominent universities dropped their appeals in order to let the University’s case eventually stand before the Supreme Court.
Although numerous academics, journalists and court watchers expected that the University’s admissions policies would serve as the test case, the decision to hear the case was not a given. Yesterday’s news should please proponents of diverse academic institutions. The court has taken several unusual steps which will ensure that all facets of the University’s argument for affirmative action will be incorporated into the eventual case. The court will hear Grutter and Gratz in tandem, despite the fact that the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to release its Gratz opinion.The two cases will offer the court two different methods for achieving a diverse population
The other crucial aspect of yesterday’s decision is that the student interveners in both Grutter and Gratz will be included in the appeal before the Supreme Court. The court has yet to decide if the interveners will be permitted to speak during oral arguments, but they will be allowed to file their briefs as part of the defense of the University’s policies.
The interveners offer a different set of arguments in support of the University’s policies. From past discrimination at the University to the use of standardized test scores in the admission process, a wide variety of factors have not been included in the University’s defense and the students interveners have served to complement the University’s position. It is essential that these beliefs become a part of the national debate on affirmative action and there inclusion in these cases will help draw these positions into the media and popular discourse. Between the University and the student interveners, there is a nuanced defense of the University’s admissions policies that could not be captured in Grutter alone.
Although the court’s eventual decision will alter the landscape of higher education, academic institutions still will bear the ultimate responsibility of creating institutions where students benefit from the complex interplay of ideas, cultures and worldviews that emerges from a diverse environment. If the Supreme Court takes the ill-advised step of overturning the University’s admissions policies, the University must be prepared with measures to ensure that minority enrollment does not undergo a precipitous decline like those that have occurred at flagship public universities in California and Florida following reversals of affirmative action policies. The gates of the University and must remain open to a diverse segment of society.