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Suit Weighs on Admissions Policies

By Nathan Collins


The Minority Introduction to Entrepreneurship, Engineering, and Science program, or MITES, saw a major shift earlier this week after anti-affirmative action groups filed a complaint with the federal government.

The shift comes at a time when university affirmative action programs are under fire around the country. The Supreme Court will soon consider Grutter v. Bollinger, a case challenging the University of Michigan’s race-based admissions policy, and Princeton University last week said it would end or modify a summer program similar to MITES.

MIT announced Monday that it has decided to allow high school students of all races and ethnicities to apply to MITES.

Race will continue to be a factor in making admissions decisions, said MITES Director Karl W. Reid ’84.

Reid said that only twelve percent of engineering students were minorities, despite a national population that includes about twenty-five percent minorities. Therefore, he said, “we feel a need to have these intervention programs” to encourage minorities to consider science and engineering careers.

Groups filed complaint

MIT’s decision to modify the application procedure came after two groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Roger Clegg, a lawyer with the Center for Equal Opportunity, said that his group and the California-based American Civil Rights Institute filed the complaint after a student who applied to MITES was “excluded because she was the wrong skin color.”

“A program that is open to disadvantaged children of all races ... would be perfectly permissible,” Clegg said. “The mix of students [in the program] is irrelevant ... what matters is that the way students are chosen is non-discriminatory.”

Reid said that race continued to be an important issue in selecting students. “First and foremost, it is about race,” he said. “Minority students tend to be over-represented in lower socioeconomic levels,” so race and socioeconomic status are not easily separable, Reid said.

MITES will be open to whites and Asians, in addition to blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics, but the program will target minorities and use race as a selection criteria, Reid said.

“I’m looking for students who will benefit the most ... and we hope that large numbers of those will be underrepresented minorities,” Reid said.

‘Diversity’ a contentious issue

Reid, and others at MIT, believe that encouraging minority students to pursue science and engineering is an important goal, and a core question in the Grutter case is whether achieving a diverse student population is a compelling state interest.

Clegg said that diversity is not a compelling interest. “I don’t think a desire for diversity justifies discrimination,” he said.

It is unclear what impact a decision in Grutter would have. Clegg said that if the decision affects undergraduate admissions, it ought to impact other selection decisions as well.

“I don’t know if it’ll threaten the program,” Reid said, noting that whether MITES will be affected depends on the details of the Court’s decision.

A second issue is whether the Michigan admissions policy is sufficiently narrowly tailored. In addition to establishing the standard of compelling state interest, the 1995 Adarand Corporation v. Pena decision stated that affirmative action programs had to be narrowly tailored, meaning that the programs must be carefully designed and subject to judicial review.

“Requiring strict scrutiny is the best way to ensure that courts will consistently give racial classifications a detailed examination, as to both ends and means,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Debate began with Bakke

The legal questions about affirmative action programs in higher education started with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the landmark 1978 Supreme Court case that declared racial quotas unconstitutional. The case considered a U.C. Davis Medical School admissions policy that put some minority applicants into a separate admissions system. Four justices argued that race should not be used as a factor in the decision, and four argued that Davis’ policy was constitutional.

Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., wrote the key opinion. He argued that the Davis admissions method was not allowed under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but that diversity was important and race could be considered in some circumstances, though it could not be the only consideration.

Powell wrote that “the goal of achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race in admissions decisions under some circumstances,” but he also wrote that “racial and ethnic classifications of any sort are inherently suspect and call for the most exacting judicial scrutiny.”

With Adarand, the Court took a turn more toward the anti-affirmative action side. Twenty-five years after Bakke, the Supreme Court will reconsider affirmative action in college admissions and may well overturn the doctrine put forth in Bakke.

The particular question in Grutter v. Bollinger is whether the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibit the University of Michigan-style admissions system, which determines admissions by a points system. Extra points are granted if the applicant is a member of an underrepresented minority group.