Supreme Court decisions uphold affirmative action
In a major victory for U-M announced June 23, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the right of universities to consider race in admissions procedures in order to achieve a diverse student body.
In two lawsuits challenging U-M admissions policies, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of the Law School and, by a vote of 6-3, reversed in part the University's undergraduate policy while still allowing for the consideration of race in admissions.
U-M President Mary Sue Coleman called the court's action "a tremendous victory for the University of Michigan, for all of higher education, and for the hundreds of groups and individuals who supported us."
"This is a resounding affirmation that will be heard across the landfrom our college classrooms to our corporate boardrooms," Coleman said.
"The court has provided two important signals. The first is a green light to pursue diversity in the college classroom. The second is a roadmap to get us there. We will modify our undergraduate system to comply with today's ruling, but make no mistake: We will find the route that continues our commitment to a richly diverse student body.
"I believe these rulings in support of affirmative action will go down in history as among the great landmark decisions of the Supreme Court. And I am proud of the voice the University of Michigan provided in this important debate. We fought for the very principle that defines our country's greatness. Year after year, our student body proves it, and now the court has affirmed it: Our diversity is our strength."
In the Law School decision, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the majority opinion. "The Equal Protection Clause does not prohibit the Law School's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body," O'Connor wrote.
Outgoing Dean Jeffrey Lehman said the decision in the Law School affirms the importance of diversity in higher education.
"By upholding the University of Michigan Law School's admissions policy, the court has approved a model for how to enroll a student body that is both academically excellent and racially integrated," Lehman said. "The question is no longer whether affirmative action is legal; it is how to hasten the day when affirmative action is no longer needed."
Incoming Law School Dean Evan Caminker said the decision "affirmed the authority of colleges and universities to recognize that all students benefit from attending a school that has a meaningful degree of racial integration."
"This ruling will enable the Law School and other institutions of higher education to continue serving as a pathway to a more fully integrated society," he said.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist issued the majority opinion in the LSA case, declaring that while existing affirmative action law established in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke allows for race to be a factor in the admissions process, it must not be a "deciding factor." At issue, a majority of justices said, is the point value given to minority applicants.
"The university's policy, which automatically distributes 20 points, or one-fifth of the points needed to guarantee admission, to every single 'underrepresented minority' applicant solely because of race, is not narrowly tailored to achieve the interest in educational diversity that respondents claim justifies their program," Rehnquist wrote.
LSA Dean Terrence McDonald said the court's decision to uphold Bakke is an endorsement of the importance of a diverse student body.
"Historically, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts has been committed to the ideal of a diverse student body, pioneering in the admission of women and students of color," McDonald said. "And our commitment to that goal remains today.
"It is now up to us to rededicate ourselves to this diversity by refining our undergraduate admissions system to comply with the court's ruling. We will do this. We will put to work some of the brightest minds and most motivated people in the country, and the result, I am sure, will continue to be a model for all of higher education."
Vice President and General Counsel Marvin Krislov said the court's decision has impact beyond colleges and universities. Among the many amicus supporters of the University during the course of the lawsuits was the military, whose ranks of officers have become more diverse because of affirmative action. Corporations and other organizations also came forward to attest to the value of diversity.
"Our nation's prosperity and national security will be strengthened by today's decision. Diversity and excellence go hand in hand," Krislov said.
Both lawsuits were filed in 1997 in the Eastern District, U.S. District Court by white applicants, who challenged the use of race in the admissions processes of the University's largest undergraduate school, LSA (Gratz, et al. v. Bollinger, et al.) and its Law School (Grutter v. Bollinger, et al.).
A complete chronology of the key rulings in the cases and other higher education affirmative action lawsuits can be found online at http://www.umich. edu/~urel/admissions/faqs/chronology.html.
A number of conferences are being planned during the summer and fall by higher education and legal organizations to analyze and explain the effects of the court's decision on higher education policies nationwide.