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Casteen: Affirmative action rulings consistent with U.Va.’s policy
Spectators and television crews gathered outside the Supreme Court in Washington June 23, as the Court announced its 5-4 ruling to uphold an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan law school.
AP/Dennis Cook
Spectators and television crews gathered outside the Supreme Court in Washington June 23, as the Court announced its 5-4 ruling to uphold an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan law school.

Staff Report

As legal scholars pored over Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions upholding the use of race as a factor in university admissions, U.Va. President John T. Casteen III said the rulings appear to match the University’s admissions policies.

In separate cases involving University of Michigan’s undergraduate and law school admission processes, the court issued a narrow 5-4 decision that allows schools to continue to take the race of an applicant into consideration in the interest of building a diverse student body. However, the Court voted 6-3 to strike down the Michigan undergraduate admission office’s use of a system of awarding a set number of bonus points for membership in an underrepresented minority, holding that an applicant’s racial status must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court is a welcome one, and it has clarified the law as we hoped it would,” Casteen said. “To the extent that we understand the ruling following an initial review, the Court has approved admission practices that appear to be essentially those that we follow.”

The University’s General Counsel will take the time necessary to do a thorough review of Monday’s decisions, Casteen said.

For about six years, U.Va. used a 20-point system that added two points to an applicant’s score for being a member of an underrepresented minority. That system, though quick and efficient, was abandoned in 1999 when the University returned to a previous, more labor-intensive process: painstakingly reading every application and preparing a written summary of each applicant. The current system includes a checklist of 19 factors, including diversity, but the factors are not assigned any specific weight.

“There was a strong feeling at the University that the intense reading process gave us a truer picture of each student as an individual,” said University spokeswoman Carol Wood. “The president and [Dean of Admission John A. Blackburn] decided it was best for the University to implement the more rigorous reading process. As we sought to build strong classes that were an interesting mix of young people, the reading approach made more sense.”

University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman hailed the Court’s decision, and promised to change U-M’s undergraduate admissions process.

Monday’s rulings were seen as a reaffirmation of the Supreme Court’s 1978 opinion in the case of the University of California Regents v. Bakke — authored by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. for a narrow 5-4 majority — that held that racial and other kinds of diversity could be taken into account in a properly crafted admissions process.

U.Va. Law School Dean John C. Jeffries Jr., a former Powell clerk and biographer, said Monday’s ruling endorsed Powell’s reasoning 25 years ago, requiring an admission process that is individually focused.

“It was what I expected and hoped for, but no one can predict Supreme Court rulings with confidence,” Jeffries said.

Cory D. B. Walker, project director at the Center for the Study of Local Knowledge at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, was also pleased with the ruling.

“This bodes well for the future of affirmative action in higher education and the use of race in these decisions,” he said.

Nonetheless, Walker fears that it will not be the last word. “Opponents of affirmative action want to see an end to it,” he said. “This is not the last say on this issue.”

The pair of discrimination cases brought against the University of Michigan began in 1997. When minority applicants with lower test scores were selected over white candidates Barbara Grutter and Jennifer Gratz, the two women sued Michigan’s undergraduate and law schools, respectively. They cited the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which holds that the states must provide “equal protection of the laws,” and charged that Michigan’s racially preferential policies denied them that protection.

Michigan’s undergraduate admission office used a point system to evaluate applicants. Along with test scores and high school records, school officials considered such factors as membership in an underrepresented race, which automatically granted 20 points to minorities. While Michigan’s law school did not employ the point system, minority status is one of the factors used to determine which students are admitted.

The Court struck down the undergraduate admission point system, but upheld the law school’s less standardized process.

Since the Michigan cases’ hearing in April, universities, colleges, students, corporations, politicians and military officers filed a record deluge of hundreds of “friend of the court” briefs.

Many corporate and military leaders argued that racial diversity in colleges and professional schools is needed — not to compensate for past racial discrimination, but to prepare minorities for leadership positions. Meanwhile, proponents at colleges and universities insisted that affirmative action was needed to blend students with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and foster the best learning environment.

Others remained skeptical, calling for carefully tailored affirmative action policies only when universities are unable to achieve racial diversity through other means.
Monday’s ruling puts the legal issue to rest — at least for the time being — but probably will not end the debate, Jeffries said.

“In 1978 the court was divided 5-4 and the country was very nearly split,” Jeffries noted Monday. “Today the court is divided 5-4 and the country is closely split. That shows how difficult these problems are.”

Matt Kelly and Lauren Fischer contributed to this report.


1950 Sweatt v. Painter, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents — Prohibits the segregation of black students in law and graduate schools. Inspires the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, along with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, to devise a plan to force the Supreme Court’s reexamination of its “separate but equal” doctrine.

1954 Brown v. Board of Education — Upon a black family’s request to send their daughter to a nearby white elementary school, the Supreme Court orders all public schools to integrate. The decision overturns the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling and denounces the notion of “separate but equal.”

1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 — Prohibits discrimination in public accommodations, such as hotels and restaurants, as well as any programs that receive federal funding, and establishes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

1978 University of California v. Bakke — After being denied admission twice, white college applicant Allan Bakke sues the admissions office at the University of California at Davis medical school, charging that the school granted admission to minority candidates with lower test scores and GPAs. With an entering class of 100, the school set aside 16 spots for minority students in a “special admissions program,” which the Supreme Court deemed a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Although Bakke eventually won admission to the medical school, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of using race and ethnicity in the university admissions process to promote diversity.

1989 City of Richmond v. Croson — By invalidating the city’s established minority-business set-aside program, the Supreme Court demands a stricter standard of review for affirmative action programs. Such programs must have a “compelling government interest,” and carefully tailored goals.

1996 Hopwood v. Texas — After being denied admission, white applicant Cheryl Hopwood sues the University of Texas Law School, claiming that minority students who were less qualified in terms of grades and test scores were granted admission. A Court of Appeals in the Fifth Circuit barred all higher education institutions in its judicial district from considering race as a major factor in selecting their student populations. The circuit court called affirmative action policies discriminatory and ended racial considerations in all colleges in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

1997 October: Jennifer Gratz, a white applicant, files a lawsuit against the University of Michigan Undergraduate Admissions Office upon receiving a rejection from the school, charging that minority students with poorer grades and lower test scores were accepted.

December 1997: Barbara Grutter — Also a white applicant, sues the University of Michigan Law School, citing similar grievances to those of Gratz.

1999 University of Virginia Office ofAdmission — Eliminates “booster points” for minority students, although race remains one factor among many in the admissions process.

2003 January: Bush administration lawyers — File briefs with the Supreme Court, arguing that the University of Michigan’s admission policies, in an effort to increase minority enrollment, utilize a quota system, and therefore are unconstitutional.

2003 February: Supreme Court agrees to hear both Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, unleashing a flood of 74 amicus curiae briefs filed in support of the University of Michigan and its promotion of diversity by more than 14,000 students, colleges and universities, law schools, professional and national education organizations, retired military leaders and executives.


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