Justices to hear U. of Mich. case today

Minority admissions policy is first to be reviewed by Supreme Court in 25 years

April 01, 2003|By Peter Y. Hong | Peter Y. Hong,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Like thousands of high school seniors in 1995, Jennifer Gratz opened her mailbox one day and found a rejection letter from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

With a 3.8 grade point average and an ACT admission test score in the top 20 percent of test takers, Gratz, who is white, blamed her rejection on a university policy that gives minorities extra points in the formula it uses to select its students.

"The fact is, the University of Michigan discriminates against people based on skin color," she said.

Gratz registered her disappointment in a big way - by suing the university. Her case, and one involving a white applicant rejected by the University of Michigan law school, are set to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court today. The cases mark the high court's first review of affirmative action in university admissions since the 1978 Bakke decision, which outlawed racial quotas but upheld the use of race as a "plus factor" in admissions to achieve diversity.

That decision, based on the complaint of Allan Bakke, an applicant to the University of California, Davis, Medical School, kept the affirmative action debate smoldering. Universities reluctantly compromised by dropping quotas and adopting admissions policies like Michigan's. Those who believe race should not hold any sway in admissions decisions remained aggrieved.

In the decades after the Bakke decision, competition heated up for places at prestigious universities and so did the debate over affirmative action. States with prestigious public universities, such as California, saw tensions over affirmative action boil over in the 1990s as slots at top campuses became "super-glittering prizes," said Nicholas Lemann, author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, a study of the SAT and affirmative action.

The Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, which represents the plaintiffs, made two arguments in its challenge to the Michigan policy. It argued that the Bakke ruling has been implicitly overturned by more recent high court decisions and that, even if schools can use race as a "plus factor," Michigan officials go too far.

University officials say their affirmative action policy is needed to ensure diversity. The number of minority students would plummet without race-based admissions, they contend.

If the court strikes down Michigan's use of race in admissions, private universities could be affected as well. Because those schools receive federal funds, they are subject to anti-discrimination standards set by the Supreme Court. Dozens of corporations and military leaders, including three former chairmen of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, have also filed briefs supporting the university's affirmative action plan.

Many educators believe the challenges to affirmative action are fueled by a growing fear among middle-class and affluent Americans that failing to attend an elite university will cut off roads to wealth and professional success. Gratz, the daughter of a police officer and a secretary in a mostly white working-class Detroit suburb, said her childhood dream of becoming a doctor was tied to her plans to study at Ann Arbor.

Gratz attended the Dearborn campus of the University of Michigan, where she earned a math degree. She lives in Oceanside, Calif., and works as a software trainer for a vending machine company.

When Gratz was a freshman at Dearborn, she read a newspaper article that detailed the University of Michigan's system of racial preferences. The article mentioned that a state legislator was seeking names to forward to the Center for Individual Rights, which was planning a lawsuit.

Gratz volunteered and was picked by the center to be a lead plaintiff, along with another white student, Patrick Hamacher, who had a 3.4 high school grade-point average and score in the 89th percentile on his ACT exam but was turned down by Ann Arbor in 1996.

Goodwin Liu, a Washington lawyer whose research on affirmative action was noted in the lower courts' consideration of the Michigan cases, contends that because the total number of minorities admitted to selective schools is small, few whites lose places to minorities admitted under affirmative action.

Peter Y. Hong is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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