Bush administration enters U. of Mich. admissions case

Lawyers for president file briefs with high court, claiming quotas are used

January 17, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Lawyers for President Bush filed a pair of briefs last night with the Supreme Court saying that the University of Michigan's admissions programs in both the undergraduate and law schools designed to increase minority enrollment were actually quota systems in disguise and are unconstitutional.

In the briefs, filed with the court minutes before the deadline for the administration to become involved in the most important affirmative action case in a quarter-century, the Justice Department said that both schools had violated the constitution's guarantee of equal protection in their efforts to enroll more minority students. Moreover, the administration lawyers argued there were several race-neutral ways the university could go about trying to increase its minority population.

"It ignores available race-neutral alternatives and amounts to a forbidden racial quota," said the brief, signed by Theodore B. Olson, the solicitor general, of the undergraduate admissions program. That program awards points to minority applicants.

The law school program, which counts race as a factor, was also unconstitutional because it also operates as a quota system, the Bush lawyers said.

At the school's Ann Arbor campus yesterday, Mary Sue Coleman, the university's president, convened a regularly scheduled meeting of the Board of Regents and expressed strong disagreement with Bush's characterization of the school's programs.

Coleman told the trustees that while she welcomed Bush's rhetorical nod to the importance of diversity in his televised speech, he had misunderstood the admissions programs.

"Let's set the record straight," she said. "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."

Just as Bush's lawyers had concentrated on the specifics of the Michigan programs, Coleman defended the specific procedures used to screen applicants.

Bush asserted that the undergraduate admissions program was flawed because it provided 20 points to minority candidates in a 150-point formula that assessed their qualifications, compared with 12 points allocated to scores on the SAT examination. Coleman said that the 20 points given in the process should be compared with a total of 110 points for "academic factors including grades, test scores and the strength of the high school curriculum."

The law school does not use a point system but counts race as a factor among many that would enhance an individual's application. Bush administration lawyers contend it operates as a virtual quota because it has been used in such a way that the minority percentage of the incoming class is always a little more than 10 percent.

Coleman said that minority enrollment at the law school had ranged from 12.5 percent to 20 percent in the past 10 years. That was, she said, similar to the percentage of California residents in each class, demonstrating there was no manipulation of the such factors to reach a particular result.

But at least one of the regents, Andrea Fischer Newman, said she agreed with Bush's approach. Newman said, "The president is correct when he says there are some race-neutral things that can be done, that should be tried."

Newman, who was appointed to a federal regulatory board by Bush, said that many of the alternative approaches suggested by Bush, including scouring high schools for attractive minority candidates, would be more costly and time-consuming than using a formula. "The university, I believe, should be exploring other ways to maintain a diverse class."

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