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Court Decision Unlikely To Alter MIT Admissions

By Nathan Collins


MIT’s use of race as a factor in admissions decisions is in the clear, at least for now.

In fact, the Supreme Court’s rulings in two cases involving the University of Michigan’s admissions policies appear to specifically allow MIT’s method of using race in admissions. Because MIT uses race in an individualized way, and because its goal of creating a diverse student population is now court-sanctioned, it is unlikely MIT will need to make changes to its admissions process.

The court ruled that achieving a “critical mass” of underrepresented minorities, as University of Michigan lawyers put it, was beneficial to the education of the the school’s students. “Today, we hold that the law school has a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the decision regarding Michigan’s law school admissions. The decision was released June 23.

Some observers thought it likely that the court would find that diversity in a student population was not a compelling interest, and one observer, Professor Pam Karlan of the Stanford Law School, considers the decision key. “I think the most important thing is they’ve indicated race-conscious” positions are appropriate, she said.

The Court agreed with arguments from business and military leaders that the benefits of a diverse student and working population “are not theoretical but real,” O’Connor wrote. MIT submitted one of many friend-of-the-court briefs arguing the social benefits of a diverse student population, and MIT President Charles M. Vest said last February that his own life had been enriched by contact with a diverse population of teachers and colleagues.

Court narrows ‘narrowly tailored’

On another point, whether the Michigan law and undergraduate schools’ affirmative action strategies were sufficiently narrowly tailored, the court emphasized that individual consideration was necessary. The Michigan law school takes such an approach, the court ruled, but the points system used in undergraduate admissions was not appropriately individualized. Minority status, as well as socioeconomic hardship and other factors, meant a bonus of twenty points, twenty percent of the number required for admission.

Referring to Justice Powell’s opinion in Bakke, a quarter-century old case that set out the “compelling interest” and “narrowly tailored” standards, O’Connor wrote that “truly individualized consideration demands that race be used in a flexible, non-mechanical way.” Futhermore, a goal of increasing minority enrollment is not akin to a quota. Quoting Powell, O’Connor wrote “‘[S]ome attention to numbers,’ without more, does not transform a flexible admissions system into a rigid quota.”

Jack Beerman, a professor at the Boston University School of Law, said that the Court’s decision means that any school that uses “an all things considered” approach, one in which many factors are considered, will be safe.

Beerman suggested that there are other possible avenues, including the stricter Massachusetts discrimination laws, that could be used to attack affirmative action, but that it was generally unlikely that courts would accept such arguments.

“I think they’ll be multiple fronts,” including further litigation to better define the “murky line” in the Court’s decision, said Curt Levey, director of legal and public affairs at the Center for Individual Rights, whose lawyers represented the applicants who originally brought suit against the University of Michigan.

MIT admissions strategy safe

Karlan suggested that, while there is still room to define “narrowly tailored,” MIT’s admissions strategy is exactly the kind of “non-mechanical” method that the court has now sanctioned.

In an example that Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones used earlier this year, one student, the child of migrant workers who attended a poor high school, invented a portable chili cooker that field workers could use to cook lunch.

“He’s gone much farther with his talents,” Karlan said, and it is this kind of consideration that the Supreme Court has approved. Karlan said that a less individualized decision -- based, for example, on simply whether the inventor was black or white, without broader consideration -- was not enough.

“The decisions in the Michigan admission cases comprise a strong judicial approval of MIT's approach to admission -- careful, multi-dimensional evaluation of each individual candidate with race being considered as one of many factors,” Vest wrote in an e-mail. Therefore, Vest wrote, he does not anticipate any changes in MIT’s admissions program.

Other programs’ fate unclear

One area that remains unsettled is the multitude of minority-oriented programs such as MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Science Program, or MITES. The program came under fire earlier this year when two groups, the Center for Equal Opportunity and the American Civil Rights Institute, filed a complaint with the Department of Education charging discrimination in MITES admissions. Prior to this year, MITES admitted only underrepresented minorities, except in unusual circumstances.

At the time, Roger Clegg, a lawyer with the Center for Equal Opportunity, said that diversity in educational programs was not compelling interest. “I don’t think a desire for diversity justifies discrimination,” Clegg said. He went on to say that a decision in the Michigan cases ought to apply to other minority-oriented programs as well.

Karlan said that it will likely be some years before a new affirmative action-admissions case comes before the Supreme Court, but that the next frontier is likely in disputes over programs like MITES. Without any current cases, however, she said could not say what kind of outcome to expect. Vest wrote in the e-mail that MITES “considers race as one of many factors,” but that the Michigan cases did not address outreach programs like MITES.

“I could imagine there could be a problem” with such outreach programs, Beerman said, but “I would be surprised” if a lawsuit came up. He said that programs that don’t use quotas in admissions are unlikely to run into legal problems, in part because current judges have focused their concern on quotas.

Levey said that outreach programs that are open only to minorities, as MITES used to be, “have always been illegal ... you’re clearly using [race] as the only factor.” While some lawsuits may come up, they are unlikely, Levey said, because the law in this area is clear and the chance to set a precedent is small.