President Bush's condemnation of the University of Michigan's admission process Wednesday evoked a mixed response from the University of Chicago community and brought the topic of affirmative action into the political spotlight.
According to law professor Geoffrey Stone, though the general language of Bush's announcement on national television made his overall statement unclear, Bush was rejecting the consideration of race as a factor. While the 1978 Bakke Supreme Court decision allowed the use of affirmative action with some limitations, this movement is the first step toward reversing that landmark decision, Stone said.
"There's been a lot of water under the bridge since the Bakke case," Stone said. "Essentially he believes that the Bakke decision was either wrong at the time or is no longer what the policy should be."
Bush will file a brief urging the Supreme Court to declare the University of Michigan's policy unconstitutional, and help three white students who say they were denied admission to the undergraduate and law programs in place of less qualified minority applicants. In doing this, he is attacking Michigan's number-based admissions process, labeling it a system of "quotas."
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education," Bush said. "But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based on their race."
As of December 2000, the University of Michigan has graded applicants on a 150-point scale. Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans receive 20 points for the race, the equivalent of raising the applicant's grade-point average a full point on a 4-point scale.
By attacking only the University of Michigan, Bush seemed to make a distinction between the policy there and at other schools, which consider applicants holistically by taking into account their scores as well as life circumstances. But University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman rejected this, saying that each candidate to the law school is considered personally.
"We also carefully review individual experiences and interests in our highly competitive process," she wrote in a formal statement. "Everyone competes fairly for a seat."
Chicago law professor Elizabeth Garrett believes that with the fate of the American policy on affirmative action ultimately resting in the court system, Bush's move was mainly political. "The President participates in many Supreme Court cases. What is different is the very public way he is responding to this one," she said, citing the proximity of the recent Trent Lott affair.
Anessah Ali, associate provost and affirmative action officer for the College, said that the University strongly supports the practice of factoring ethnicity into the admissions process and that she was disappointed by Bush's statement.
"I understand the need for the Supreme Court to evaluate this issue, but I didn't think it was appropriate for the President to make the statement he did--especially on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday," Ali said. "I thought that was quite ironic."
While Ali did not know the University of Michigan's admissions policies well enough to comment on them specifically, she said that if the school used a quota system--Coleman maintains that it does not--then it would be inappropriate.
Ali said she has not seen an admissions system that successfully maintains minority representation without directly acknowledging applicant ethnicity: "Discrimination is still an issue; affirmative action is still necessary."
Among students in the College, the topic of affirmative action is a contentious issue.
Josh Young, a second-year in the College, said he agrees with Bush's assessment that the current policy is racist, and that the Michigan policy blatantly favors some ethnic groups. "Race is going to be a factor in the application process, but it can't be overt," he said, adding that Michigan's use of race in admissions decisions "is blatant."
The only acceptable form of affirmative action is when race serves as a tiebreaker between two equally qualified candidates, Young said. It is unreasonable, he continued, to attend a premier College--and pay its hefty price tag--only to be surrounded by less than stellar classmates.
"The solution is not at the college level," he said. "It's at a societal level. [The solution is] to encourage minority children to read and learn. That's where you fix the problem, not by selecting less qualified candidates to let in."
Willie Jackson, a first-year in the College, thinks affirmative action serves a crucial purpose. In discussing the topic, Jackson emphasized that the numbers and scores presented in an application fail to present perhaps the most important aspect of a prospective student: the lifestyle and community in which the applicant realized his achievements.
"Which is better, for someone to come from a high school in the suburbs and get the most expensive education and take an SAT class and then get a1450, [or for] someone who lives in the inner city to not have as many opportunities but get a 1250?" Jackson said. "Either way, race is a big issue."
Though Jackson supports affirmative action, he thinks Michigan's policy of giving a blanket handicap to minority students is something of an insult: "It tells the minority population they are inferior and they need that much more help," Jackson said.
So what, according to Jackson, is the correct application of affirmative action?
"It's not wrong to consider race in the admissions process, but it's wrong to play the race card. This whole numerical system is a problem--the numbers don't reflect real people."