Yesterday's Supreme Court rulings on admissions practices at the University of Michigan produced reactions as mixed as the opinions, but this much was agreed on: Racial preferences in higher education have survived their toughest challenge in years.
At campuses in Maryland and around the country, college officials said the two rulings would allow them to leave intact policies that take race into account as a factor in their schools' admissions decisions.
"We've been wondering why the weather's been so cold: It's because Christmas was coming in June," said Larry S. Gibson, a professor and admissions committee member at the University of Maryland School of Law. "This is the first time the court has unambiguously said affirmative action is constitutional, that diversity is a compelling state interest, and that affirmative action can be used to achieve it."
At the same time, the rulings left lingering questions among some college officials about exactly which admissions methods can now be used to achieve racial diversity on campuses. Such uncertainty applies particularly to large, selective universities that, with their huge numbers of applicants, could find it difficult in practice to adopt the nuanced form of affirmative action approved by the court.
As a result, critics of affirmative action warn that the rulings leave room open for future legal challenges, which they pledged to continue bringing.
"Any school that continues to use race in admissions is walking a thin line between legality and illegality," said Curt Levey, director of public affairs at the Center for Individual Rights, which represented the three white plaintiffs in the case.
By a vote of 5-4, the court upheld the University of Michigan law school's practice of considering race as one among many admissions factors in its attempt to enroll a "critical mass" of underrepresented minorities. Reaffirming the landmark 1978 Bakke ruling, the majority found that "narrowly tailored" racial preferences are legal because they "further a compelling interest in obtaining educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."
In a separate 6-3 ruling, the court rejected the point system used by the University of Michigan's undergraduate college, which awards 20 points on a 150-point scale to black, Hispanic and Native American applicants. Unlike the more nuanced approach taken by the law school, the court found, the point system was too broad to pass constitutional muster.
Affirmative action advocates, many of whom had been expecting the point system to be struck down, deemed the rulings a total win because the court had upheld the principle of race-conscious admissions.
The opinions spared colleges a frenzied search for alternative ways to achieve racially mixed student bodies, officials said. Numerous studies have shown that the numbers of blacks and Hispanics at selective colleges and professional schools would plummet without preferences.
Backers of affirmative action also cheered the court's upholding of Bakke's justification for racial preferences: that racial diversity on campuses improves learning. That claim has come under attack even among some affirmative action supporters, who argue that it is better to defend the policy as a way to right past discrimination and elevate disadvantaged minorities.
The diversity argument, critics said, made affirmative action seem like a policy meant to help sheltered white students who needed exposure to minorities - not its original intent. But yesterday's rulings buttressed the diversity claim, said University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan.
"It's one of the most rewarding and reassuring aspects of the decision, that this principle that I think has served higher education so well has been reaffirmed," he said.
Foes of affirmative action took some solace in the undergraduate ruling, saying it vindicated their claim that the point system was blatantly unfair. But they lamented the basic endorsement of racial preferences, predicting it would prolong racial disharmony by keeping alive suspicions on campuses that not all students arrived there on the same merits.
The opinion "is a setback for race relations in America," said Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute. "The Constitution requires government to treat us as individuals, not as members of racial or other classes. That's what equal protection under the law is all about."
Critics also said the ruling left confusion about which admissions practices are legal and which are not, raising the likelihood of more lawsuits.
"Both decisions ... continue the murky environment that existed after Bakke," said David Gersten, executive director of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank. The rulings "keep the floodgates of litigation open" by suggesting that a discriminatory process can be made lawful by tweaking.