In a monumental decision the U.S. Supreme Court answered an essential question: Can race continue to be used as a factor among others in admissions to American colleges and universities? A majority of the court answered yes, upholding the fundamental principle of the 1978 Bakke decision. On the surface this is a resounding victory for the University and its supporters – higher education, corporate America, civil rights organizations and the military. The court in effect said that on balance there is a compelling state interest for institutions such as universities to promote diversity through the use of race.
Given its complexity – two cases, different admissions practices and different student pools – it is not surprising that the court upheld the Bakke principle while at the same time concluding that not all of the University’s practices were narrowly tailored. A point system designed in the manner employed by undergraduate admissions clearly troubled a majority of the court’s members. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice William Rehnquist found the “factor of race . . . decisive for virtually every minimally qualified underrepresented minority applicant.” This conclusion led the court to instruct the University to modify its admissions practices and to decrease the decisiveness of race, although not necessarily its centrality.
Today we are to be thankful that the court listened closely to the University and its supporters, which marshaled a storehouse of research data and legal opinions to support its case. Today we are to be thankful that universities are allowed to take the total applicant into consideration, including an applicant’s academic preparation and high school achievement, geographic location, socioeconomic status, special talents, family ties to the university and of course race. Today we are to be thankful that the court rejected the idea that alternative solutions such as percent plans represent a viable alternative to current policy. Today we are to be thankful that the University and its leadership decided to fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Today we are to be thankful that the University decided to exhibit leadership all around.
Today we are to be reminded that yesterday’s victory is the first step in a larger process. Those who are opposed to affirmative action and the University’s stance will not go away. Tomorrow they will regroup and redirect efforts and push forward on a new front. Nor should we lose ourselves in the high of this one win. The larger challenge of creating a racially inclusive society looms as large as ever. Our obligation is to prepare our campus and the nation to move forward. Creating access and opportunity is one thing; creating a diverse society is something else. Our task will be incomplete until we tackle the latter and answer a paraphrased version of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s probing question: “When will practices such as affirmative action no longer be necessary?” The answer is not today but perhaps in several tomorrows. As the University of Michigan, our responsibility is to lead the way.
Lewis is dean of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, as well as a professor of history and Afro-American and African studies.