UR President Thomas Jackson and the Office of Admissions staff have closely followed the recent developments of lawsuits which chastise the affirmative action-based admissions process at the University of Michigan and foreshadow major changes in admission for both public and private higher education.
“This is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to clarify what’s viewed as the opinion in the Bakke case of 1978. It’s not a surprise that the Supreme Court focused on this case over the similar cases from Texas and California cases,” Jackson said.
“Michigan pitched this as resting exclusively on trying to achieve a diverse student body and not trying to undo past discrimination. They recognize the goal of diversity for academic purposes of higher education, which I think is a legitimate goal,” he said.
Jackson explained possible outcomes of the trial and how they would affect UR. The first possibility, a ruling against Michigan, would be a rejection of diversity as a justification for race-based admissions.
“The second possibility, where the Bush administration comes in, is to say that diversity is a good reason, but the current methods to achieve it are not legitimate,” Jackson said. “The third possibility is that the decision maintains that diversity is an important interest and these methods are all reasonable, legitimate ways to do that.”
The two cases challenge the constitutionality of Michigan’s admission procedures citing the 14th Amendment.
The impending decision, however, not only affects the admission procedures of public institutions but also threatens private institutions that receive federal funding, due to the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“The court decision will have direct implications as to what we can do as a private institute and that worries me because some of the solutions being suggested in the Bush administration are unobtainable for private institutions.” Jackson explained.
Jackson said that, as a small private university, the Office of Admissions at UR has the right to review each application in an attempt to promote racial, religious, political and economic diversity.
“That’s how I think universities make progress. Having the underlying goal of diversity is extremely important. We don’t use crude methods like Michigan, but we look for people from diverse backgrounds to attend the university and some of those decisions will be based on race,” Jackson said. “I think what we do is fully in the spirit of accomplishing diversity and I hope the Supreme Court will say this is a legitimate goal.”
Director of Minority Student Affairs and the Higher Education Opportunity Program Norman Burnett agreed with Jackson on the importance of a diverse student body, not only for the immediate benefit during a student’s college years, but also to prepare students for life outside the UR campus.
“I believe in diversity and race should be considered as a factor. We do not have a quota system and moved beyond that from an educational standpoint but students should be able to experience a broad range of perspectives at UR,” Burnett said.
Provost Charles Phelps said that the most important approach is to encourage the largest number of qualified minority students possible to apply.
“In the past 10 to 20 years the proportion of students who describe themselves as an underrepresented minority has fluctuated by one or two percentage points from year to year. It has probably not fluctuated more than about four or five percent points from high to low over the past quarter century,” Phelps said.
“We admit the strongest students and shape the class within that framework to achieve a number of other educational goals, one of which is diversity of the student body,” Phelps said.
Phelps summarized the UR admissions process during which prospective students’ are reviewed through their high school transcript, GPA, class rank, AP classes, activities and a personal statement. The combined rating gives the best possible picture of a student’s likelihood of success at UR.
“The key point in many ways is that each application receives very careful and personal attention, rather than having a robot-like scoring-system like some universities and colleges,” he said.Student reaction
The student body, much like the Supreme Court, appears to be split down the middle concerning the necessity of affirmative action within the college admissions process.
“I can understand what people are saying about affirmative action and how some people think that race really isn’t a factor in regard for education, but people are always going to notice race. I think that affirmative action is the best way to go right now, and it is a very difficult subject,” sophomore Aiesha Edwards said.
“I also know that it was as hard for me to get into this university as anyone else. I worked very hard and was not just let into the school because of my race,” she said.
According to freshman Paul Zito, affirmative action is unnecessary and encourages citizens to focus on skin color.
“Affirmative action sounds to me like a leftist program to permit racism. If UR said ‘let’s give 20 more points to every white person applying,’ then everyone would be offended,” Zito insisted. “Race should never factor into people’s lives,” he said.
Sophomore Benjamin Chan agreed with Zito that race should not be a factor in the admissions decision, however, added that socioeconomic standards should be carefully considered.
“Underprivileged students, like those with a single working parent, who are deprived and need to work several jobs need to be rated differently,” Chan said.
According to Take-Five Scholar Mansoor Khan, the University of Michigan quota program successfully promotes diversity.
“Harvard is six percent minorities, and it is only need-based admissions but they don’t come anything close to the nation’s average of minorities. That proves that affirmative action is required, and, although it’s unfortunate, race and class often go along with each other so the program does do justice,” Khan said.
“I don’t think that Bush has the right to argue against affirmative action because he has been the beneficiary of favoritism throughout his entire life,” he added.
Prospective students Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher filed the first lawsuit against Michigan’s College of Literature Admissions in October 1997.
They both claimed that the race-based admissions unjustly denied non-minority students admission to the university.
Two months later, graduate Barbara Gruffer filed a similar lawsuit against Michigan’s law school.
The final decision of both lawsuits, expected by June 2003, will either maintain or overturn the 1978 “Regents of the University of California v. Bakke” decision which upheld the constitutionality of considering race and ethnicity factors in college admissions.
Secretary of State Colin Powell specified that “the state has a substantial interest that legitimately may be served by properly devised admissions program involving the competitive consideration of race and ethnic origin.”
Although UR Admissions staff considers race a secondary factor for acceptance, it also maintains a program solely dedicated to offer acceptance to students who meet a socioeconomic profile.
As director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program, Burnett mentioned that the criteria for financial need is usually met by minority students and underscores the necessity of an affirmative action program.
“[Affirmative action] is a very touchy issue, and some people think of it as preferences, but I don’t think so,” Burnett said.
“I think it is leveling the playing field until there is equity and I don’t think we are there yet in society.”
Welzer can be reached at email@example.com.