In choosing each incoming class of law students, the University of Michigan looks beyond test scores and into the broader educational and life experience of each applicant. As the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge to those admission policies in a case that could produce the most important affirmative action precedent in a quarter-century, that balance is noteworthy.
The law school does not use a racial quota. It does not place applicants in separate tracks according to their race. It does not advance one applicant ahead of another solely because of race. Rather, the school looks at each applicant individually, through university grades, types of courses taken, entrance test scores, work experience, leadership abilities, references, interviews and -- yes -- whether they are from under-represented minority groups.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in upholding the admission policy, noted that balance: "Race and ethnicity, along with a range of other factors, are potential 'plus' factors in a particular applicant's file, but they do not insulate an under-represented minority applicant from competition or act to foreclose competition from nonminority applicants."
This case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, along with a parallel case challenging the undergraduate admissions policy at Michigan, a policy that rests on shakier constitutional ground. In both cases, white students recruited by the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington, D.C., group fighting affirmative action, have challenged the school. They claim they were denied admission because of race.
The high court's long silence in this and other university admissions disputes has left the microphone to trial judges, appellate courts, politicians and voters throughout the country, and their words and deeds have collided.
In the 24 years since Allan Bakke claimed reverse discrimination when he was denied admission to a University of California medical school that used explicit racial quotas, the nation has moved in different directions. What may be most impressive about the Michigan defense is that it has been joined by a cross-section of business, education, legal and advocacy groups. Nearly 80 organizations have filed legal briefs in support, including General Motors Corp., Microsoft Corp., Dow Chemical, the American Council on Education, American Bar Association, National Partnership for Women and Families, and a consortium of six civil rights organizations called Americans for a Fair Chance.
At stake is more than just whether a major public university is allowed the freedom to consider race as one variable in the makeup of its student body. If the Supreme Court were to overturn the underlying principle in the Bakke case, which is that racial diversity is a permissible goal, then any race-conscious strategy in public and most private universities would be at risk. Forget about admissions decisions. Such a ruling could undermine minority scholarships, recruiting efforts and community outreach programs.
In the months ahead, as the court examines Michigan admissions, people will debate whether the university goes too far in considering race. The undergraduate admission policy, for example, employs a scoring system, with 20 of a possible 150 points awarded if the applicant represents an under-represented minority. The law school policy is more fluid and individualized. Neither accepts an academically unqualified student, and African-American admissions to the law school have fluctuated annually. Last year, 26 black students were accepted, representing only 7 percent of the class.
The question of whether the policies overly emphasize race is far different from whether they should be allowed to consider race at all. In Bakke, the court ruled that quotas go too far, but it also said that racial diversity is a compelling state interest. That interest lies not only in providing opportunity for minorities this nation has historically excluded but also in building rich and instructive educational environments.
"Enrolling students who have studied abroad or served as interns on Capitol Hill contributes to a lively and sophisticated classroom dialogue," writes Michigan Law School dean Jeffrey Lehman. "So does enrolling a racially integrated class. And students who learn at integrated campuses are better prepared to succeed in courthouses and companies of America in 2002."
Lehman makes a compelling case for Michigan, and one alumnus, former President Gerald Ford, has written eloquently about the broader social implications.
"Lest we forget," Ford writes, "America remains a nation with have-nots as well as haves. Its government is obligated to provide for hope no less than for the common defense."
The Michigan case speaks to aspirations. A university has to be careful in how it uses race to select students, but it has to be allowed to seek diversity if it is to serve its missions faithfully.
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