January 17, 2003

Staff Editorial

Now that President Bush has stated his intention to file an amicus curiae brief in the pending Supreme Court case dealing with affirmative action at the University of Michigan, the debate over what roles race and disability should play in college admissions has reemerged from obscurity. A recent joint study between the University of Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that people with white-sounding names receive more responses when applying for jobs than those with black-sounding names. It is no secret that latent racism is still a pervasive presence in some circles of American society. We cannot dismiss out-of-hand the entire notion of affirmative action so long as discrimination persists. At the same time, affirmative action as implemented by the University of Michigan seems to reward minorities with admissions at the expense of other qualified applicants. This opposition between the desires to increase diversity and to afford disadvantaged high schoolers (of all races) access to higher education, and the need to minimize discriminatory practice, poses a daunting question to policymakers.

Public universities have come up with various approaches to this problem. California's system awards "hardship" points to disadvantaged students. Michigan grants bonus points based on race. Texas automatically admits the top 10 percent of high school students, pending equivalency testing. Needless to say, each of these programs has its merits and also its limitations.

With private universities' individual interests complicating matters still more, the debate over affirmative action will doubtless be intense. But the University of Chicago, owing to its relatively small undergraduate population, is in a position to maintain a personalized, non-rule-based admissions policy that can avoid the problems of the larger state college systems. This would enable us to sustain an unbiased yet considerate admissions policy, and to bring what we can to the ongoing discussions in as objective a manner as possible.