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Admissions Affirmative Action Under Fire, in Supreme Court

By Tom Kilpatrick


The Supreme Court announced last week that it would review two lawsuits challenging the University of Michigan’s use of racial preferences in undergraduate and law school admissions.

The two cases are the vanguard of a legal war against affirmative action in university admissions. Lower-court decisions in recent years have already forced universities in several states, including Texas and California, to revise their admissions policies.

The decision will be anxiously awaited by public and private universities alike; if the Supreme Court declares affirmative action unconstitutional, MIT and virtually all other private universities would have to stop considering race in admissions.

MIT currently “makes special efforts to recruit and admit highly qualified students from groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in its population,” according to its Web site.

The eyes of higher education will be watching intently this spring as the Court hears the two cases and makes a decision. “If the Supreme Court comes down, it’s going to be bigger than all of us,” said Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones.

Jones considered the prospect of a Court ruling that declared affirmative action unconstitutional. “It will make us be more resourceful,” Jones said. “We’ll have to put our minds to this this winter in preparation for the ruling.”

Federal aid tied to discrimination

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids racial discrimination in “any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” MIT received more than $300 million in Federal research money for the 2002 fiscal year.

Students on campus seemed to be less aware of last week’s Court announcement and its implications.

Cecilia Henriquez ’04, vice president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, said that “we haven’t really discussed it.”

Similarly, Shauntel Poulson ’05, the National Society of Black Engineers’ public relations chairperson, said that her organization “hadn’t had any formal discussions on the issue.” Poulson said that although members’ support for affirmative action varied, the organization would be opposed to revised admissions policies that resulted in fewer opportunities for black students.

Two cases before Supreme Court

The cases, Barbara Grutter vs. Lee Bollinger and Jennifer Gratz vs. Bollinger, will give the Court the opportunity to revisit the issue for the first time since its 1978 decision in University of California Regents vs. Allan Bakke. Grutter and Gratz were white applicants to Michigan’s law school and College of Literature, Science and the Arts; neither was granted admission. Each contends she would have been admitted had the University not considered race in its admissions decisions.

Lee Bollinger was a vocal spokesman for affirmative action during his six-year tenure as president of the University of Michigan. He is now president of Columbia University.

Allan Bakke’s 1978 case was similar; he was a white applicant denied admission to the UC-Davis medical school and felt that affirmative action constituted reverse discrimination against majority applicants. The Court ruled that school’s use of quotas unconstitutional, but kept affirmative action alive by allowing the consideration of race as a factor in admissions.