July 16, 2003

Affirmative Action Decision Results in Few Admissions Changes

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SINGAPORE — With the Supreme Court’s June 23 affirmative action ruling in favor of the University of Michigan Law School’s use of race as a factor in admissions decisions, many officials on East Hill believe that the decision is a victory for higher education as a whole.

Among those who were delighted with the result was new University President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77, a named defendant in the Grutter v. Bollinger law school case. In a recent interview, the former dean of the Michigan law school said that a student body which is, “outstanding and diverse is the hallmark of a great academic institution.”

“The Supreme Court’s endorsement of that vision is welcome news for all of higher education and is consistent with Cornell’s ideals that go all the way back to the founding,” Lehman said.

The Court reinforced the 1978 California Regents v. Bakke case, which ruled that race could be used as a “plus factor” in academic selection processes. However, in the Gratz v. Bollinger decision, a case which coincided with Grutter, the Court stopped short of completely validating Michigan’s undergraduate admissions practices, when it rejected the use of a formula-based “point system” that grants 20 extra points to minority candidates.

“The Supreme Court even in turning down the undergraduate process at the University of Michigan approved the qualitative assessment of talent for admission rather than relying exclusively on quantitative measures,” said Robert Harris, vice provost for diversity and faculty development.

In the law school case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated in her majority opinion that while, “student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify the use of race in university admissions,” institutions must take caution in creating “a narrowly tailored plan” in its admissions processes.

“Diversity has now been firmly proven and legally accepted as a compelling interest,” said James J. Mingle, University counsel.

Although many rightly predicted that the Supreme Court’s decision would be a close affair (Michigan law won by a five-to-four margin), University supporters of the school were confident that Bakke would be upheld.

“I was not surprised that the court agreed to uphold race in admissions,” said Funa Maduka ’04, president of the Ivy Student Affirmative Action Coalition (ISAAC). “There was an overwhelming filing of amicus briefs which supported affirmative action that came from across all sectors.”

Maduka’s observation might be valid especially since over 100 amicus briefs were submitted from parties and individuals ranging from Fortune 500 companies to military leaders. In the Bakke case, a brief submitted by Harvard played a key role in the Court’s decision.

Cornell co-submitted its own friend-of-the-court brief with four other Universities. Rather than directly focusing on the use of race as a plus factor, the submission centered on admissions offices’ first amendment rights.

According to Richard D. Geiger, dean of admissions for the law school, the Court’s decision reaffirms “a long tradition of deference to academic judgment,” and would help “admit law students who represent a broad spectrum of backgrounds and experiences.”

“The Court recognized ‘a constitution dimension, grounded in the First Amendment, of educational autonomy’ — which was the central argument in our amicus brief,” Mingle said.

While point system institutions such as Michigan’s undergraduate program are seeking to substantially reform their admissions processes, University law school policies have been similar to the ones approved of in the decision, according to Geiger.

“The Court approved an admission process, used by the University of Michigan’s law school, whose principal features were virtually the same as those we have used for many years at Cornell Law School,” Geiger said.

As for other University institutions, Mingle does not expect there to be major changes in admissions practices. The school and legal counsel are currently reviewing selection practices.

“We certainly seem to be in synch with the recent Supreme Court decisions,” Mingle said. “Cornell has adhered to the Bakke principles in its admission practices and applicants are given individualized assessments.”

Although many administrators are pleased with the decision, others outside the University arena are more skeptical about the ruling.

According to a recent survey conducted by the University’s Survey Research Institute (SRI), New York residents are split on the issue of using race as a factor in admissions and employment processes.

Yasamin Miller, director of SRI, said in a University News report that only 53 percent of New York state residents support the use of affirmative action policies in employee hiring and 48 percent support its use in college admissions. Opinions also vary significantly in reference to the geographical location and ethnicity of the respondents.

Even though Maduka acknowledged that “everyone will have their own personal thoughts and feelings” about the decision, Harris said that there could have been major consequences if Bakke was knocked down.