U. of Mich. case is crossroads for affirmative action policy

Supreme Court to hear arguments on considering race in college admissions

March 31, 2003|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Thousands of demonstrators are expected tomorrow when the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments about whether the University of Michigan's undergraduate college and law school should be allowed to use race as a factor in admissions.

Civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, plan to rally outside the high court in a show of support for affirmative action. The justices are scheduled to hear a 1997 case filed by two white students rejected by the undergraduate school, and a separate case filed the same year by a white student rejected by the law school.

The lawsuits are the most important affirmative action cases to reach the high court in decades. And the influence of the court's decision is likely to be felt in other areas, such as employment.

"Affirmative action has always been seen as a lawful means of remedying past and present discrimination," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said in a prepared statement. "It is still the right thing to do to level the playing field and a proven way to increase diversity."

Patrick Hamacher, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Michigan's undergraduate school, told the Associated Press that race considerations "endorse discrimination."

"There is racism in this country, and people do look at each other differently based on the color of their skin," he said. "But to say that our public policy should not only allow that but endorse it is just not right."

The plaintiffs are represented by the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative Washington legal organization that in 1996 won a similar case against the University of Texas law school. The center scored a victory in that case after a federal appeals court ruled that race could not be used as an admissions factor.

In 1978, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to outlaw racial quotas in the Bakke vs. Regents of the University of California case, but it upheld the constitutionality of considering race and ethnicity in college admissions.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, said the high court's ruling will be as important as Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision that outlawed public-school segregation.

If the Bakke ruling allowing consideration of race is overturned, "what we'll see is a resegregation of the most selective institutions of higher education in this country, and I think that would be a terrible tragedy," Coleman said.

Coleman said legal briefs supporting the university's affirmative action policy have been filed by many colleges and universities, more than 70 leaders of Fortune 500 companies, U.S. military officials and civil rights groups. She said the school's plan complies with principles set by the Bakke decision.

"We do precisely what Bakke allows: We use race as one of many factors," she said. "It's not the only factor, it's not the deciding factor. It's one of many factors in building a class that's diverse in a number of different ways. Our overriding criteria is academic qualification - if students don't meet a very high bar of academic qualification, we don't even look at the other characteristics."

Coleman said the University of Michigan receives more than 25,000 applications for about 5,000 spaces in its undergraduate freshman class each year.

"We have many more students who are qualified academically than we could possibly accept," Coleman said. "So the first thing we do is look at those grades and test scores. Then we look at other factors. We look at whether they're from rural areas of Michigan, whether they're from Michigan, what kind of essay they write, whether they're from a low socioeconomic condition. We look at whether they have special talents, such as being an athlete. And yes, one of the factors we look at is race."

Applicants to Michigan's undergraduate classes are scored on a point system. Minorities, underprivileged applicants and athletes can receive as many as 20 points on a 150-point scale. Applicants who have relationships with alumni also can receive points under the formula. About 15 percent of Michigan's students are underrepresented minorities, Coleman said.

The law school's admission formula is not as rigid as the undergraduate school's. The law school receives more than 5,000 applications each year for 350 slots.

In January, lawyers for the Bush administration filed briefs opposing Michigan's affirmative action system. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson wrote that Michigan ignored "race-neutral alternatives" and that its affirmative action program was no more than a "forbidden racial quota."

Coleman disagreed.

"Quotas are illegal, and we don't have one and have never had one," she said. "Our policy is race-conscious, not race-based."

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