Law & Courts

Affirmative Action Rulings Seen Yielding Refinements In College-Entrance Plans

By Sean Cavanagh — July 09, 2003 5 min read
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Selective colleges and universities are likely to refine their race-conscious admissions practices—rather than overhauling or expanding them—in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision offering conditional support for affirmative action, observers predict.

Few institutions are likely to risk running afoul of the court’s qualified endorsement of racial preferences by pushing overt preferences in admissions for underrepresented minorities, those legal advocates and college officials say.

Instead, schools will probably tinker with policies to align them with the letter of the court’s June 23 ruling, which upheld the individual consideration of race as a factor in admissions, but rejected the use of numerical point systems to promote racial and ethnic diversity. (“Justices Give K-12 Go- Ahead to Promote Diversity,” this issue.)

“Given the fact that it was such a big decision, I think people are going to be pretty cautious about what they’re going to do now,” said Cheryl Fields, a spokeswoman for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, in Washington. “I’m sure many campuses will make small adjustments, and a more limited number will make larger ones.”

The high court supported an admissions model used by the University of Michigan’s law school, allowing race as part of an individualized review of each applicant. But in a second decision, the justices invalidated a plan used by Michigan’s undergraduate school that automatically awarded points based on race.

Several higher education officials estimated that the majority of the nation’s selective colleges and universities use some form of affirmative action in admissions, or at least informal policies promoting diversity.

Those schools largely regard the court’s rulings as a validation of current practices, and they are not likely to inject more aggressive racial preferences into their policies, several college leaders said. Few schools had point-driven systems similar to Michigan’s undergraduate policy, they noted.

“Over the past decade, most selective colleges and universities began revising their admissions to remove [race] as anything more than a ‘plus factor,’” said Sheldon E. Steinbach, a vice president and the general counsel of the American Council on Education, a Washington group that represents more than 1,800 institutions of higher education. Schools today, he added, are “much more cautious than they were a decade ago.”

Any dramatic changes colleges make in support of affirmative action will draw close scrutiny, several critics of race-conscious practices warned. Some campus leaders might try to quietly bypass the legal limits of the ruling, they suggested.

“Schools are basically going to try to play word games, and if that’s the case, there’s going to be a lot of litigation,” said Curt A. Levey, a spokesman for the Center for Individual Rights, the Washington- based legal organization that represented the plaintiffs challenging the University of Michigan’s policies.

To the Ballot Box?

Some opponents of racial preferences are planning moves to stymie their growth. Ward Connerly, a member of the University of California board of regents who led the fight for passage of Proposition 209, which banned racial preferences in education and government contracts in that state, said he was prepared to push similar ballot initiatives in eight to 10 states.

The state of Michigan is a “prime target” for a ballot measure, said Mr. Connerly, who also helped lead the passage of a measure that barred racial preferences in Washington state.

“I either go fishing, and ignore the court’s decision, or I make an effort, along with others who agree, to overturn it,” Mr. Connerly said.

For now, University of California officials say they believe the passage of Proposition 209 six years ago would prevent them from reviving affirmative action in their admissions programs.

But just hours after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Larry R. Faulkner, the president of the University of Texas at Austin, said his campus would once again begin considering race as a factor in admissions, beginning with the entering class of 2004.

Texas and its sister state colleges and universities have been operating under a law that guarantees admission to all high school students ranking in the top 10 percent of their graduating classes. That policy was enacted in response to a 1996 federal appeals court ruling, known as Hopwood v. Texas, that barred the use of race as a factor in admissions.

Mr. Faulker said the University of Texas would continue to abide by the 10 percent plan, but would merge it with affirmative action policies that the university believes could better promote diversity.

“He’s talking about taking the best of the 10 percent plan, and using affirmative action to make it better,” said Don Hale, the university’s vice president for public affairs.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said his state would not depart from “Talented 20,” his state’s much-scrutinized race-neutral admissions model.

Some critics of racial preferences predict large state universities will struggle to review applications and consider race with the individualized scrutiny required by the Supreme Court. But other observers point out that some universities already employ such far-reaching reviews.

The University of California’s “comprehensive review” of applications, even though the university system does not use race as a factor in admissions, was cited by several college officials as a potential standard for other schools.

Adding Staff

The University of Minnesota, which admits roughly 70 percent of its freshman applicants, replaced a formulaic approach to admissions with a “holistic” model for its incoming 2003 class, which weighs academic history, extracurricular talents, and other circumstances, said its admissions director, Wayne Sigler. Race is included as a potential factor, he said.

In launching the new review process, the Minnesota admissions office increased the number of “readers” of the roughly 17,000 annual freshman applications from 16 to 26. Some employees were retrained for those duties, Mr. Sigler said.

“We don’t feel like we’re the smartest kids on the block. It’s a journey for us, too,” Mr. Sigler said of the policy. “Each state has to make a decision that best fits their local conditions. It’s not one-size-fits-all.”

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