Affirmative action case decided

    The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 23 that race can be used as a factor in college admissions in a pair of landmark decisions clarifying affirmative action, but that the awarding of points to underrepresented minorities in the admissions process is unconstitutional. Because the use of race in admissions is already banned at public universities in California, the decisions are not expected to affect UC admissions processes.

    The high court heard two separate but parallel cases involving racial preferences used by the University of Michigan for admissions.

    The Court, by a 5-4 vote, allowed the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action program. However, the Court struck down the University’s undergraduate admissions policy of awarding 20 extra points on the admissions ranking scale for blacks, Latinos and American Indians with a vote of 6-3.

    Petitioners in the law school case, GRUTTER V. BOLLINGER, argued that the university’s admissions process illegally discriminated against Barbara Grutter, a white applicant who was turned away from the law school. After investigating, Grutter determined that underrepresented minorities with lower admissions scores than her own were admitted.

    Both cases hinged upon the Court’s 1978 decision in REGENTS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA V. BAKKE, which deemed racial quota systems unconstitutional, but ruled that the “”narrowly tailored”” consideration of race in admissions serves a bonafide state interest.

    “”We find that the law school’s admissions program bears the hallmark of a narrowly tailored plan,”” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who cast the deciding vote and authored the opinion of the Court in Grutter. “”We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.””

    In the case involving the university’s undergraduate admissions program, GRATZ V. BOLLINGER, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote that “”the university’s policy is not narrowly tailored to achieve the interest in educational diversity that respondents claim justifies their program.””

    The decisions bring an end to court battles that have lasted almost six years.

    “”The Court has provided two important signals,”” said University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman. “”The first is a green light to pursue diversity in the college classroom. The second is a road map to get us there.””

    No immediate impact will be felt in California, where, in 1996, voters approved Proposition 209, barring race to be a factor of admission to any public university in the state.

    “”Because California’s voters banned the use of affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities in 1996, the recent Supreme Court decisions regarding the University of Michigan’s cases will not affect the University of California’s admissions policies,”” said Lavonne Luquis, director of outreach and admissions communications at the UC Office of the President in a July 23 message.

    Other reaction to the Court’s decisions has been firm.

    “”The court’s action to uphold the principles of affirmative action sends an important message that diversity can be one of many compelling considerations in admitting students to our nation’s most selective universities,”” UC President Richard C. Atkinson said in a statement released shortly after the decisions were announced. “”The University of California will continue to comply with Proposition 209, and we will continue to work through other legal means to achieve excellence and diversity on our campuses.””

    Immediately following the enactment of Proposition 209 in fall 1998, acceptance rates of underrepresented minorities at the University of California fell significantly.

    Hanan Eisenman, media coordinator for admissions at the UCOP, says that since the enactment of Proposition 209, the UC system has expanded outreach and refined the admissions process.

    “”On the one hand, since the initial dip after Proposition 209 took effect, underrepresented minority enrollment has risen steadily at all campuses,”” Eisenman said. “”On the other hand, our most selective campuses are still far below where they were in terms of minority representation.””

    Since fall 2002, the University of California has used an admissions process called comprehensive review that attempts to take into account the full record of each applicant. While not designed as a replacement for affirmative action, the new system has increased minority admittance at most UC campuses since the beginning of race-blind admissions, most notably at UCSD.

    In fall 1998, the first year of race-blind admissions, underrepresented minorities made up 9.9 percent of freshman admission offers for UCSD. For fall 2003, 15.2 percent of admission offers were extended to underrepresented minorities.

    Systemwide, admission offers to minorities have increased 1 percent since the last year of race-conscious admissions.

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