The University Record, December 18, 2000

‘Landmark’ decision supports undergrad admission policies

Editor’s Note: The LS&A lawsuit, Gratz v. Bollinger, et.al., was filed in 1997 by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights (CIR). CIR filed suit on behalf of Jennifer Gratz, an unsuccessful applicant for admission for fall term 1995, and Patrick Hamacher, an unsuccessful applicant for fall term 1997.


By Jane R. Elgass

In a landmark decision, Judge Patrick Duggan of the federal court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit on Dec. 13 issued a judgment in favor of the University in the LS&A admissions lawsuit, upholding the University’s use of affirmative action in admissions.

In the 50-page ruling, Duggan said, “The University defendants have presented this court with solid evidence regarding the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body.

“This court is persuaded, based upon the record before it, that a racially and ethnically diverse student body produces significant educational benefits such that diversity, in the context of higher education, constitutes a compelling governmental interest under strict scrutiny.”

Commenting on remedial affirmative action, Duggan said: “The need for diversity lives on perpetually. This does not mean, however, that universities are unrestrained in their use of race in the admissions process, as any use of race must be narrowly tailored. Hopefully, there may come a day when universities are able to achieve the desired diversity without resort to racial preferences.”

Duggan found that the admissions process used in 1995–98, a grid system that held positions for minority students, was unconstitutional. He said the current process, in place since 1999, is legal. This process is based on a point system.

“Applying the principles set forth by Justice Powell in Bakke, this court is satisfied that when examined in its entirety, the LSA’s current admissions program (1999–present) represents a permissible use of race.

“Foremost in the court’s decision,” Duggan said, “is that the LSA’s current admissions program is constitutional is the fact that the LSA’s current program does not utilize rigid quotas or seek to admit a predetermined number of minority students.”

“This is an unequivocal ruling in our favor,” said President Lee C. Bollinger in a statement released Dec. 13. “The court ruled that the current system for admitting students to the University of Michigan is legal, and the reasons for the consideration of race are completely justified.”

The University has maintained that the use of race in admissions is legal based on the 1978 case of University of California Regents v. Bakke. In ruling on that case, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted public institutions of higher education to use race in admissions. The University has contended that, under Justice Lewis F. Powell’s decision in Bakke, it has a “compelling governmental interest in the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body and that, under Bakke, the admissions process was properly tailored to achieve its stated interest in diversity.

“According to Justice Powell,” Duggan said, “a university’s ‘interest in diversity is compelling in the context of a university admissions policy’ in which ‘diversity . . . is only one element in a range of factors a university properly may consider in attaining the goals of a heterogenous student body.’”

“It is clear that a majority of the justices in Bakke expressly agreed that the California Supreme Court erred in enjoining the university from ever considering race in its admissions program,” Duggan said. “Therefore, to the extent that the University defendants assert Bakke’s holding to be that ‘a properly devised admissions program involving the competitive consideration of race and ethnic origin’ is constitutional, this court agrees.”

The University also submitted testimony from a number of experts that demonstrated the educational benefits of a diverse campus.

Referencing testimony by psychology Prof. Patricia Gurin, Duggan said, “This court is satisfied that, if presented with sufficient evidence regarding the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body, there is nothing barring the court from determining that such benefits are compelling under strict scrutiny analysis.”

Gurin’s testimony cited research she conducted that shows all students, non-minority and minority alike, learn better when the learning takes place in a setting where they are confronted with others who are different than themselves.

“A racially and ethnically diverse university student body has far-ranging and significant benefits for all students,” she said. “In fact, patterns of racial segregation and separation historically rooted in our national life can be brokered by diversity experiences in higher education.”

“Students learn better in a diverse educational environment, and they are better prepared to become active participants in our pluralistic, democratic society once they leave such a setting,” Gurin said.

Provost Nancy Cantor noted that Duggan’s ruling “is an enormous victory for the University, for its faculty, staff and students, and for the country more broadly. [Judge Duggan’s] ruling was an extremely thoughtful opinion that incorporated our expert testimony on the educational benefits of a diverse setting. In addition,” she noted, “he made it clear that our current system is completely justified and legal.

“The two-fold nature of the ruling, in its broad and deep support for the consideration of race and its specific support for our current system is extremely gratifying.”

The University also was supported through a number of amicus briefs filed by 35 organizations, institutions and companies, including General Motors Corp., the U.S. Department of Justice, the Michigan Attorney General, the state of Ohio and the American Council on Education.

In October, 20 more corporations filed an amicus brief, arguing that diversity in higher education plays a critical role in preparing students to become leaders in business and other pursuits that affect the public interest.

“I am deeply gratified by the court’s decision to recognize and affirm the critical nature of diversity in higher education,” Bollinger said. “This decision is a victory not only for the University of Michigan and for our students, but also for the leaders, corporations, labor groups, education associations, religious organizations and others across the country who have affirmed the rightness of this principle.

“The decision of the court today [Dec. 13],” he added, “supports the admission policies of virtually every selective university in the nation. The court has followed 22 years of settled law that permits colleges and universities to pursue diversity to meet important educational aims.”

Many observers believe that the issue eventually will reach the U.S. Supreme Court because of the conflicting nature of rulings by other U.S. courts.

In his decision, Duggan cited a Dec. 6 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that said the legality of an admissions policy at the University of Washington should be decided by the principles of the 1978 Supreme Court ruling, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

The Washington ruling conflicts with an opinion issued in a 1996 case involving the University of Texas at Austin (UTA), generally known as Hopwood, in which a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that UTA’s law school illegally used racial preferences.

The University also has been sued over the Law School’s admissions process, Grutter v. Bollinger, et.al., on the same grounds used in the LS&A suit. CIR sued on behalf of Barbara Grutter, an unsuccessful applicant for the fall term 1997 entering class. The trial date for this case is Jan. 16 under Judge Bernard Friedman in the federal court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Information on the lawsuits is on the Web at www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions, as well as on the University’s gateway page, www.umich.edu.