December 5, 2002

Affirmative Action Argued in Case

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In a move with implications for colleges and universities nation-wide, the Supreme Court on Monday accepted a case challenging the use of race in admissions decisions by the University of Michigan.

Under the 1978 Bakke decision, universities can consider race as one factor among many when making admissions decisions but cannot use race as the primary deciding factor or to fulfill quotas.

“It’s better to have the Court hear it sooner rather than later,” said Robert Harris Jr., vice provost for diversity at Cornell, who worries that the Supreme Court could change in the coming years and become less receptive to affirmative action legislation.

“Universities should be able to make these choices in what they consider to be educationally valuable ways,” Harris added.

Critics of affirmative action disagree.

“I believe that universities which use federal funds should not employ racial discrimination for any ends,” Elliot Davis ’04 said.

When reviewing applications, Harris said that Cornell considers race as only one item on a long list that includes socio-economic status, athletic ability, region, musical ability and other characteristics, including whether an applicant has overcome adversity.

“In surveys of the American public, overwhelmingly the public believes that a diverse student body is important for education to prepare for the world in which we all live,” Harris said. “The means of achieving diversity is at issue.”

Part of this debate encompasses the legacy of slavery and segregation.

“Affirmative action started in response to the fact that universities discriminated against minorities,” Davis said, adding that now affirmative action is not making up for past inequities so much as creating new ones.

“We can’t look to one generation of affirmative action to level the playing field after many generations of exclusion,” Harris said.

The University of Michigan’s application process assigns points to applicants for minority status, academic performance and other factors.

“We don’t do admissions in the way Michigan does,” said Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin. Cornell’s applicants are rated individually and qualitatively by a faculty committee, rather than on a point system.

Caucasian applicants to Michigan claimed that minority students with poorer academic performance were accepted to the university, while they were rejected, according to the New York Times.

Title VI of the 1965 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based upon race by any institution receiving federal support.

Possible rulings from the Supreme Court could declare Michigan’s admissions process illegal, while continuing to allow systems such as Cornell uses. Another possible outcome could reaffirm the Bakke standard, as lower courts have done throughout the country, or else it could create a new standard for the consideration of race in admissions.

“There will be some value in having a decision so we can understand what we’re dealing with,” Martin said.

The court could decide to prohibit all affirmative action in admissions.

“If indeed race cannot be a consideration in admissions decisions, we could see, I think, a change in the number of African-American, Latino and Native American students at the University,” Harris said.


Archived article by Peter Norlander