Race-based admissions plan is `divisive, unfair,' Bush says

High court to receive brief opposing U. of Mich. policy

January 16, 2003|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As the Supreme Court prepares to hear one of the more significant affirmative action cases in 25 years, President Bush came out strongly yesterday against a University of Michigan admissions policy that gives preference to minority applicants.

Bush called the policy "divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution." He said he would direct the Justice Department to oppose it today in an official brief to the Supreme Court.

At the same time, the president pointedly expressed support for racial diversity on college campuses, saying "much progress has been made; much more is needed."

But he argued that the University of Michigan's policies - which grant black and Hispanic students an advantage in admissions to its undergraduate and law schools - "amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based on their race."

"The motivation for such an admissions policy may be very good," the president said. "But its result is discrimination, and that discrimination is wrong."

The announcement injected Bush into an emotionally charged issue with political consequences. Democrats and civil rights groups seized on his position to accuse him of being unwilling to take the steps to achieve a diverse society. Some key moderate Republicans also expressed disappointment.

"The administration has said as clearly by their actions as anyone can that they will continue to side with those opposed to civil rights and opposed to diversity in this country," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Other senior Democrats joined Daschle in criticizing the administration for adopting this stance and others that they said would hinder efforts to promote racial fairness.

"We have worked together to make sure that we were going to have a fair process of inclusion for all Americans," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.

"The administration has walked away from that commitment, from that promise, from that guarantee," Kennedy said.

In his remarks, Bush expressed unequivocal opposition to Michigan's admissions policy, saying it resulted in racial quotas. But a senior White House official said last night that the brief deals only with Michigan's system and takes no position on whether race can be considered in public programs.

Four moderate Republican senators warned Bush in a letter Tuesday against taking the position that diversity was not a "compelling government interest." Doing so "could do significant harm to our system of higher education," said the letter, signed by Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

"We believe that an admissions program can be structured which recognizes race as a compelling government interest without endorsing quotas or goals, or admitting students from any racial group who are not as well qualified as students from other racial groups," the letter said.

The distinction is an important one that touches on the core issue in the case headed to the Supreme Court: whether diversity is a compelling enough interest to justify the use of race as a factor in admissions at publicly supported colleges. The court's decision could determine the extent to which race can be considered in such programs.

Snowe, the Maine Republican, called Bush's announcement "disappointing," saying his position seemed to suggest that race could never be a consideration in admissions decisions.

Bush has made clear that to achieve diversity in public higher education, he supports race-neutral policies based purely on achievement, not the racial preferences used in some affirmative-action programs.

"Diversity can be achieved without using quotas," Bush said, pointing to a program begun in Texas when he was governor that is now being used in Florida and California. It grants the top 10 percent of each high school's graduating class admission to a state university.

In its last landmark decision on affirmative action - the 1978 ruling in University of California vs. Bakke - the Supreme Court declared that strict racial quotas were unconstitutional. But it also said diversity was a worthy goal that could be considered in admissions decisions at public colleges.

The University of Michigan is one of a handful of public universities that have tried to establish affirmative-action programs without running afoul of the ruling. Michigan's policy, which a group of white students is challenging as unconstitutional, awards points to minority students. It does so as part of a system that also considers a variety of other factors - including standardized test scores and academic achievement.

Bush faces conflicting political pressures in the Michigan case. His party's conservative base has pushed hard for an absolute rejection of affirmative-action policies. Yet such a stance could alienate minority voters as Republicans' standing on racial matters has come under scrutiny.

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