Should the Supreme Court Uphold the University of Michigan Admissions Point-Policy?
The issue of affirmative action in college admissions is back on the front pages. It has split the Bush administration, energized the Hispanic and African American communities and engendered a public debate as to if -- and how -- publicly supported U.S. educational institutions can use race as a factor in determining the make-up of their student bodies.
The University of Michigan, in an effort to insure a racially diverse student population, uses a point system to rank the admission applications of prospective freshmen. Applicants receive points for such factors as their SAT scores, grade point averages and the quality of their submitted essay. Of a perfect ranking of 150 points, minority students (Hispanic, African American & Native American) automatically receive a 20-point bonus before all other factors are considered, as do candidates from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Receiving a 16-point bonus are applicants from Upper Michigan, an economically depressed area of the state.
The Universitys "point-policy" has been challenged in the courts, alleging that it unfairly excludes better-qualified non-minority applicants. The case, brought by several rejected law school candidates, has moved through the lower courts and has reached the U.S. Supreme Court for final disposition. In the past, that body has ruled that educational institutions receiving federal funds may use race as a factor to achieve a diverse student body, so long as their policies are "narrowly tailored" to meet a "compelling government interest." Anathema to the current Court is any system that achieves racial diversity by a "quota system."
University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman addressed the "quota" issue. "We do not have nor have we ever had quotas or numerical targets in either the undergraduate or the law school admissions system. By far the overwhelming consideration is academic qualification." She explained that 110 points out of the possible 150 are given for academic factors, including grades, test scores and the strength of their high school curriculum. "Every student we admit is qualified and prepared to do the work," she concluded.
Shortly after the Supreme Court accepted the case, most national Hispanic organizations quickly lined up in support of Michigans point-policy, citing the need for constitutionally acceptable methods to give disadvantaged minority students a chance to matriculate in premier colleges. Expressions of support for the plaintiffs came mainly from politically conservative groups and those favoring differing means to achieve the same objective, such as the so called "race neutral" systems put in place by Texas, Florida and California. These automatically admit to state universities students who rank in the top percentiles of their state high school graduating classes.
Most thought that President George W. Bush would remain silent in the case, but, at the last hour before the filing deadline, he instructed the Justice Department to submit a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that the point-policy is "constitutionally flawed." Herald sources report that the day before the White House announcement, Alberto R. Gonzales, a Bush lawyer and advisor to the President on the issue, told Hispanic leaders that Bush would not commit to either side of the issue. The Washington Post reported, "Bush only fleetingly considered his option to remain silent on the case, deciding that it was of sufficient national importance that he should describe his views."
In a normally airtight administration, the two African Americans in President Bushs cabinet publicly disagreed with each other on the Presidents action. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, who had been Provost of Stanford University before coming to the White House, argued that giving preference to minorities was not an effective way to achieve student body diversity. On the other hand, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that he disagrees with President Bush's position on the University of Michigan issue. At the Republican National Convention in 2000, Powell was unequivocal in his support of affirmative action programs.
Democrats rushed to the microphones to excoriate the Presidents position, saying that his rhetoric about diversity is not matched by deeds. Democratic Senators Tom Daschle (D-SD), Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) announced that they will file "friend-of-the-court" briefs favoring the University of Michigans policies. Republican spin-doctors are saying that the President and their Party favor racial diversity, but that it must be accomplished by constitutional means. They argue that the University of Michigans point-policy violates the Constitutions equal protection clause and ignores "race neutral" alternatives to achieve the same objectives. Sen. Clinton told a Harlem audience, "there is nothing wrong with what the University of Michigan is doing. I applaud the Presidents commitment to diversity, but do not believe replacing traditional affirmative action with race neutral plans will fully accomplish our shared goal of promoting diversity throughout our institutions of higher learning."
The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF) supports Michigans point-policy and intends to state its position to the Supreme Court in an "amicus brief." Foster Maer, Acting Legal Director of the Fund, told the Herald that PRLDEF believes that colleges seeking racial diversity must acknowledge the important role that race plays in the real world. "Admission policies need to be explicit in their recognition that race factors permeate U.S. society and often work to the disadvantage of well-qualified minority students."
The University of Michigan, long a leader in progressive approaches to education, insists that its point-policy is non-discriminatory. According to University of Michigans President, the University strives to achieve "a student body that is richly diverse in many ways because it enriches each students learning environment." Puerto Rican historians will recall that, in the Nineteenth Century, it was the University of Michigan that admitted to its medical school the Puerto Rican -- and eventual father of the Statehood movement -- José Celso Barbosa, a Black, after he had been turned down by Columbia University in New York due to his race.
The Supreme Court has announced no date for oral arguments to begin on the case. In the meantime, Herald readers may express their views on what should be the Courts ruling.
Should the Supreme Court uphold the University of Michigans admissions point-policy?