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U-M Gets Broad Support On Using Race…College 'Percent' Plans May Not Help Diversity

U-Michigan Gets Broad Support On Using Race

By Charles Lane

Feb. 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.

As the Supreme Court faces its biggest showdown over a racial issue in 25 years, America's business, education and labor leaders are throwing their weight behind the University of Michigan's bid to preserve race-conscious college and university admissions.

Among the organizations and individuals who are planning to submit friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the university are several dozen Fortune 500 companies, the nation's elite private universities and colleges, the AFL-CIO, the American Bar Association -- and a list of former high-ranking military officers and civilian defense officials, according to attorneys involved in the case.

Though its ultimate impact on the court is difficult to gauge, this impending flood of briefs shows the degree to which the American establishment has embraced the pursuit of diversity through race-conscious means since the court's 1978 decision in the Bakke case. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the court's last major ruling on race-based admissions, has been interpreted to mean that race may be a "plus factor" in admissions as long as there are no strict numerical quotas.

These pillars of U.S. society have lined up behind Michigan less to defend the particulars of its admissions programs, which award extra points to minority applicants, than to defend an array of race-conscious policies and practices they have come to believe in and rely on -- and which could be threatened if the case goes against the Ann Arbor school.

Their mix of motives includes the desire to avoid civil rights lawsuits and boycotts, in the case of corporations, and the need to avoid racial tension in the ranks, in the case of the military. But all also seem to share the belief that, given the possible alternatives, some measure of extra consideration for minorities is the best way to ensure integration.

"There really is a national consensus among national institutions that Bakke represents a workable balancing or compromise, and that the death of that compromise would have serious consequences," said Marvin Krislov, general counsel of the University of Michigan.

So powerful is this consensus that much of big business, a major component of the Republican Party's political coalition, is parting company with President Bush, who has sided with the white students challenging Michigan's admissions programs as a form of "reverse discrimination." Bush's brief agreed that diversity was a "paramount" goal -- but said Michigan should pursue it by race-neutral means.

The show of support planned on Michigan's side is in stark contrast to the 13 briefs that have been filed on behalf of the white students. Other than the brief filed by the Bush administration and another filed by the state of Florida and Gov. Jeb Bush (R), they were backed mainly by relatively small conservative public-interest groups.

However, opponents of race-conscious admissions point out that their position enjoys considerable support from the public, as measured in recent opinion polls.

"There is this striking disparity," said Curt Levey, director of legal and public affairs of the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative legal group that has spearheaded the court case against Michigan. "But often the elite and the common man are on two different pages."

The emerging array of forces in the Michigan cases, which involve challenges to the university's law school and undergraduate admissions practices, also contrasts with the lineup 25 years ago in Bakke.

That case involved white student Alan Bakke's challenge to a program at the University of California at Davis Medical School that reserved 16 out of 100 places in the entering class for blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans.

In the public arena, it was mostly an ideological contest between liberal civil rights and education groups that favored the program and Jewish organizations that opposed it, partly out of fear of a resurrected "Jewish quota" at campuses around the country. Business and labor, to the extent they were represented in the case, sided with Bakke, in the form of briefs from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Federation of Teachers.

In the current case, Jewish civil rights groups have played a different, less prominent role. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith filed an amicus brief that was critical of Michigan but formally supported neither side; the American Jewish Committee plans to side with Michigan.

Elite input proved critical to the Bakke result, as Justice Lewis F. Powell based his pivotal opinion on a friend-of-the-court brief filed by Harvard, Columbia, Stanford and Pennsylvania universities. In that brief, the universities emphasized the benefits of diversity to the educational process and said Harvard had achieved it by taking race into account as a "plus factor" for minorities, without jeopardizing the overall competitiveness of admissions.

Powell's opinion, though joined by no other justice, provided a fifth vote on the court in favor of permitting affirmative action to continue in some form.

Treated as the court's holding by companies and universities for the past 25 years, Powell's opinion became the ideological wellspring of a "diversity" movement that now holds the commanding heights of American business and education.

Notably, the rationales offered by the institutions and leaders supporting Michigan today have evolved significantly. Affirmative action was originally viewed as a form of compensation for the discrimination suffered by African Americans during centuries of slavery and Jim Crow. That concept, however, might require companies and universities to admit and make up for their own past discrimination.

Rather, businesses, unions, schools and military experts emphasize that racial and ethnic diversity, and the development of citizens who are comfortable with diversity, are pragmatically necessary in a country that must make its way in a global economy and whose workers, consumers and soldiers increasingly trace their roots to Asia, Africa and Latin America.

General Motors is siding with Michigan at the Supreme Court, as it did when the case was in a lower court. In its lower court brief, General Motors said that "only a well-educated, diverse workforce . . . can maintain America's competitiveness in the increasingly diverse and interconnected world economy."

Managers drawn from diverse universities "have tremendous value to the workforce," said Jonathan Hiatt, general counsel of the AFL-CIO.

A former superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, retired Gen. Daniel W. Christman, said he committed to a pro-Michigan brief in part because military effectiveness depends on an officer corps that is both diverse and has trained amid ethnic and racial diversity.

"We're the army of a democracy," Christman said, "and the leaders of that Army need to reflect the army they're commanding . . . because minority representation in the Army is significantly higher than in the population as a whole."

At the same time, there is little cost in terms of public image for companies that side with Michigan -- and potentially large costs for those perceived as indifferent to the interests of minorities.

Texaco, which has also supported Michigan since the lower court case, was the target of a boycott led by Jesse Jackson in 1996 because of its alleged insensitivity to minorities. The company settled a race discrimination class action suit for $176 million.

For some, the corporate support of Michigan simply shows that business has always been content to buy social peace at the cheapest possible price.

"This says affirmative action is a very conservative and cautious approach to dealing with inequality," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who advocates shifting to a system of admissions preferences based on economic class. "Business wants a steady diet of upper- and middle-class employees who can reach certain markets more effectively than whites. That's fine -- but a far reach from the strong moral force behind the civil rights movement."

College 'Percent' Plans May Not Help Diversity

Minority Enrollment Tends to Be Lower at Selective Schools, Reports Find

By Michael A. Fletcher

Washington Post Staff Writer

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

February 11, 2003

College admissions plans that admit a specific percentage of top high school graduates to state universities are not effective in achieving racial diversity -- particularly at highly selective schools, according to two new reports by Harvard University researchers.

The "percent" plans adopted by public universities in Texas, California and Florida after their race-conscious admissions plans were outlawed in recent years have allowed some colleges to maintain a substantial level of racial diversity.

But minority enrollment tends to be lower at the most selective schools, the reports said, while, overall, public universities have not kept pace with the burgeoning racial diversity in those states.

The reports released yesterday by the Harvard Civil Rights Project also found that percent plans, which President Bush has touted as a legally acceptable form of "race-neutral" affirmative action, are most effective when linked with race-conscious recruitment, financial aid and support programs. Also, the reports said, the percent plans do not address admissions to graduate and professional schools or selective private colleges.

"To suggest that these percent plans offer a good alternative to race-conscious admissions programs, to our mind, is very dangerous," said Patricia Marin, a Harvard researcher and co-author of one of the reports. "Depending on the outcome of the upcoming Supreme Court case, those other race-conscious programs may or may not remain an alternative. And if they are not, what does that mean for access to higher education for underrepresented minorities?"

After race-conscious affirmative action was outlawed in California in 1996, the percentage of black and Hispanic freshmen enrolling in the state university system initially dropped before recovering to previous levels. But the number of black and Hispanic students has declined sharply at the state's premier universities, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of California at Los Angeles.

In 1995, for example, blacks made up 6.7 percent of Berkeley's freshman class while Hispanics accounted for 16.9 percent; by last school year, 3.9 percent of the freshmen were black, while Hispanics accounted for 10.8 percent of Berkeley's freshman class. The declines have been less precipitous at the premier schools in Texas and Florida, which are far less selective than Berkeley and UCLA.

"In all of these states, the numbers are not even a close approximation of the populations these public institutions were intended to serve," said Catherine L. Horn, a Harvard researcher and co-author of one of the studies.

The issue of race-based affirmative action is one of the most polarizing in higher education. The Supreme Court is preparing to decide the constitutionality of the admissions plans used by the University of Michigan and its law school, which give sizable boosts to minority candidates.

University of Michigan officials have said that they mainly consider an applicant's academic credentials and that they treat race only as a "plus" factor. The university also gives preferences to, among others, applicants from rural areas, low-income applicants, men who apply to nursing school, women who apply for engineering school and applicants whose parents, spouses, grandparents or siblings attended the university.

But in a Supreme Court brief arguing against the Michigan admissions plans, the Bush administration calls the state's plans the equivalents of quota systems.

Percent plans guarantee students a seat in a state university if they graduate in the top tier of their high school class. In Texas, students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their class are allowed to enroll in the state university of their choice.

In Florida, students who graduate in the top 20 percent are automatically admitted to the state university system, although grades and test scores determine which campus they can attend. Similarly, California students who graduate in the top 4 percent of their class are guaranteed a seat somewhere in the University of California system, though not necessarily at the most selective branches.

The reports pointed out that many of the efforts to attract black and Hispanic students to public universities in the three states are race-conscious, even if their admissions processes are not.

In Texas, the percent plan has been supplemented by aggressive recruitment and an assortment of scholarship programs targeted at high schools that serve mostly black and Hispanic students. In Florida, officials have aimed their recruitment efforts at high schools serving mainly blacks and Hispanics and by offering scholarships for minority students. California, meanwhile, has bolstered minority recruitment and started an admissions review process that considers social disadvantages when evaluating applicants.

Florida, California and Texas are among the most racially diverse states and are critical to the nation's efforts to assemble a racially diverse corps of academic talent.

Jorge Chapa, a higher education researcher at Indiana University, said that 13 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded to Hispanics in the United States and Puerto Rico between 1996 and 2000 came from six of the top-rated public universities in Texas and California alone.

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