Supreme Court upholds affirmative action

By Joel Lanceta

The Supreme Court upheld the right of universities to use affirmative action in admissions earlier this week. The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the University of Michigan Law School in Grutter v. Bollinger, which used race as a factor in its admissions process. But the undergraduate admissions program of the University of Michigan, which had used race based on a point system, was overturned 6-3 in Gratz v. Bollinger.

Although the case only legally applies to public tax-supported colleges, the decision gives room for other public and private institutions to use subtler ways to take race into account.

The court ruled that the Michigan law school’s affirmative action policy, which uses race as a factor in admissions but does not assign it a specific weight, does not violate the Equal Protection Clause under the 14th Amendment, while the undergraduate point system does. The Supreme Court had previously ruled in the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that while racial quotas in university admissions were illegal, race could still be a consideration when admitting students.

For the University of Chicago, which had filed an amicus brief for Michigan with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Duke, and the University of Pennsylvania, the ruling was a vindication of its commitment to creating a diverse student body. The brief argued that the universities needed to maintain policies that take into account race and ethnic background to enhance students’ educational experience in the classroom and to expose them to broad perceptions in an increasingly multicultural world. The brief was one of 60 filed in support of Michigan, thought to be the largest number ever in a case presented to the Supreme Court.

“We are pleased to see the Court’s reaffirmation of the Bakke decision, within which the University’s admissions policies have operated over the last two decades,” said Provost Richard Saller in a press release. “The issue of race is a crucial one in teaching and research across the University. It is vital that the University recruit a diverse student body to bring different social and cultural experiences and interests to the classroom and the search for new knowledge.”

According to the University News Office, the admissions office carefully examines each prospective student individually, evaluating his or her achievements, background, and appearance in the application without using different races as a separate category or referring to specific formulas or tests for racial demographics. Ted O’Neill, dean of admissions for the College, was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

The Law School itself was called to a recent review before the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education to defend its admissions procedures, which were found to respect the outlines of the Bakke case. The Law School’s class of 2004 has a student body which is 12 percent Asian-Americans, 9 percent Hispanic Americans, and 5 percent African Americans.

Vice President and Dean of Students in the University Steve Klass agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision, maintaining that racial diversity is an integral element of the academic culture at Chicago.

“A broadly conceptualized notion of diversity can be viewed as a matter of supporting the academic enterprise itself,” Klass said. “If we truly value and seek to cultivate a diversity of perspectives in our institutional discourse, then we necessarily depend on a diversity of people to articulate and defend those perspectives. If we are to prepare our students to engage productively in a global community, then it is our duty to provide them with as rich and broad an experience – academically and socially – as possible during their time at this University.”

Many law school students and faculty in Chicago were also involved in a nationwide effort supporting affirmative action. Nearly 14,000 law student signatures from 41 states, 130 of which came from University of Chicago law students, were gathered in support of an amicus brief written by Georgetown University law students. Several faculty members at the Law School also signed a brief filed by the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) on behalf of the University of Michigan law school.

Jennifer Marion, a Chicago law student who helped gather signatures at the law school, said at the time the brief was filled, “I think the University’s pro-affirmative action stance reflects the belief that a diverse student body is an important element of a well-rounded college education. This diversity includes educational and socioeconomic background, as well as life experiences in general. The history we have of slavery and discrimination, not to mention our nation’s continued de facto segregation, means that race and ethnicity affect an individual’s viewpoint, and should be a factor as well.”

The University of Chicago has had a long, enriched history in collegiate diversity. Eiji Asada, a student of Japanese descent, was the first recipient of a Chicago Ph.D. degree in 1893, while Georgiana Simpson, who earned her doctorate from the University in 1921, was the first African-American women to do so in the United States.