THE IMPORTANCE of the U.S. Supreme Court's decisions on affirmative action yesterday is the court's view that diversity matters in higher education. A diverse student body is important enough to justify using race in admissions decisions. "A compelling state interest," the court said in ruling on the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action program.
A compelling interest indeed! If universities are the training grounds for America's future leaders, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor suggested in the court's 5-4 ruling, schools must strive to create a diverse educational environment for students. That means a diverse student body and more.
But the court, ruling in a second University of Michigan case, let the public know when such policies go too far. It found unconstitutional a point system used in Michigan's undergraduate admissions that gave minority applicants an automatic 20 points because of their race. In essence, the court upheld a school's goal of building "a critical mass" of minority students to achieve real diversity, but said race cannot be the determining factor in achieving it.
Both sides in the affirmative action debate have greatly anticipated the dual rulings. This was the first time the court confronted the issue head-on since its landmark 1978 ruling (Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke) that disallowed quotas in affirmative action programs. Then, as now, the court affirmed the importance of diversity.
While the rulings involved publicly financed institutions, they will most likely serve as a guide for businesses, the military, private schools and other institutions grappling with affirmative action issues. Given the conservative profile of this court, yesterday's rulings should put an end to claims that "race-neutral programs" are the way to increase minority enrollment on college campuses.
The challenge now is how to put into practice the court decisions. University of Michigan officials say they are certain they can adapt the law school's affirmative action policy to the university's larger, more diverse undergraduate school. An overly confident assessment, perhaps, and here's why: The law school's admission policy discusses the benefits of a minority student's life experience in the same breath as that of a concert pianist or an accomplished linguist, but blacks accounted for only 6.7 percent of the law school's 1,109 students, and Hispanics represented 4.4 percent. Not strikingly high numbers.
Nevertheless, diversity is an admirable and essential goal. Students of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds offer each other life lessons not usually found in textbooks or lectures. But the overriding interest should be the one articulated by Justice O'Connor when she wrote: "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity."