WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the principles of affirmative action Monday, ruling that race can be used as a factor in college admissions.
The court ruled that racial diversity on college campuses is a "compelling interest," and that the University of Michigan Law School's "narrowly tailored use of race in admissions" to promote diversity does not violate the 14th Amendment.
However, the court struck down the university's undergraduate admissions program, which automatically awards 20 points out of the 100 needed to guarantee admission to applicants who are members of underrepresented minority groups.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor delivered the court's opinion in the law school case, Grutter v. Bollinger, writing that the school's "program is flexible enough to ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes race or ethnicity the defining feature of the application."
Chief Justice William Rehnquist delivered the opinion of the court in the undergraduate case, Gratz v. Bollinger, writing that the undergraduate school's "20-point distribution has the effect of making 'the factor of race ... decisive' for virtually every minimally qualified underrepresented minority applicant."
The court last reviewed the issue of affirmative action in higher education in the 1978 case Regents of University of California v. Bakke. In this week's decision, the Court relied on Justice Lewis Powell's principal opinion in Bakke that supported race-based admissions but outlawed the use of quotas.
The court was divided in both of Monday's cases. The court upheld the law school program 5 to 4, with Justices Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas dissenting. It ruled the undergraduate program unconstitutional 6 to 3, with Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting.
Universities across the country that consider race in admissions decisions, including Penn, are breathing a collective sigh of relief.
"We are enormously pleased that the Supreme Court recognized the importance of diversity on campus and appears to have written a decision that upholds our ability to take race into account in our admissions process," University President Judith Rodin wrote in a statement. "The decision is lengthy and complex and we will need time to study it carefully to determine its precise impact on our programs."
Penn and Law School Dean Michael Fitts filed "friend of the court" briefs in February, supporting Michigan's use of race in admissions decisions.
Despite Monday's ruling, the debate surrounding affirmative action is far from over. Not only will universities need to evaluate their admissions programs to make sure they are constitutional, the ruling itself stipulated that there must be a logical endpoint to race-based admissions.
"The court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary," O'Connor wrote.
"This is a struggle that's going to continue," said Theodore Shaw, associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
According to Terry Pell, president for the Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm opposed to the use of affirmative action in higher education, schools' affirmative action programs may require further litigation. He called any affirmative action program "legally risky," noting that "the reality is, in practice, taking race into account becomes a smokescreen for quotas."
But, attorneys for the University of Michigan were pleased that the court recognized the benefits of a diverse classroom.
"America has the finest system of higher education, [giving] students an opportunity to learn together," Michigan attorney Maureen Mahoney said following the decision. "What the court has really said is those institutions can continue to do the work they're doing."
Provided with a "road map" from the court, Michigan's admissions process "doesn't go all the way back to the drawing board," Michigan attorney John Payton said. "We'll go back and make some adjustments."
With roughly 25,000 applications last year, however, Payton admitted that reviewing applicants' race without the 20-point shortcut could be more time-consuming and expensive.
Three University of Michigan undergraduates were stationed outside the Court to voice their disapproval of the rulings.
Touting a sign which read "Racism Upheld," rising Michigan senior Adam Dancy said, "That's what the Supreme Court did today... they upheld institutional racism."
But Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman disagreed, saying, "This is a huge victory."Comments powered by Disqus
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