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Responding to the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has ruled against the University of Michigan point system, which gave underrepresented minorities points in addition to those awarded for good grades and test scores. Many colleges, including MIT, factor in race in their admissions. What was unique about the University of Michigan was not the extent of racial consideration but the transparency of execution.

The University of Michigan ought to be lauded for this transparency, not singled out and punished. If a college wants to factor in race then it should be candid about this and clarify to prospective students the extent and nature of such affirmative action policies. A point system is an ideal way of doing so; even if special tilts are desired for unique backgrounds then an admissions committee can have a structured discussion around how much they think a particular background is worth. Students can understand how decisions are made, and make their voices heard if they disagree. Perhaps it is in order to avoid such reactions that MIT has pursued a policy of obtuse affirmative action. Nobody really knows how it works, and as a result heated discussions a la University of Michigan are largely avoided. Very convenient -- even the Supreme Court will not pay attention.

Of course, except in terms of transparency, points, quotas, factors, and special considerations all amount to the same thing; any one of these can be adapted to override academic merits (as measured by objective but imperfect means) in order to accept a student body with arbitrary desired diversity, racially and otherwise. President Bush has completely missed the point when he says that race in admission is OK, but quotas are not. But he is in good company; while the Supreme Court did rule against the point system they did accept race “as a factor” for law school admissions. The ruling could not have been worse. Either we do it or we don’t, and a real decision in this painful and truly difficult question was long overdue.

Tor Schoenmeyr