The University of Michigan will defend its affirmative action policies before the Supreme Court today, marking the first time since 1978 that the Court has considered the role of race in university admissions. While they predicted different outcomes in the case, Yale professors said they support the consideration of race in university admissions and agreed that the decision will have a significant effect on universities across the country, including Yale.
In February, Yale collaborated with Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago in a brief arguing that race in university admissions represents a compelling educational interest. Yale emeritus history professor Gaddis Smith said Yale and other private universities have a vested interest in the outcome of the case because they receive federal funding and are, in some respects, at the mercy of the government.
If the Supreme Court decides it is illegal for the University of Michigan and other public universities to take race into account when making admissions decisions, government officials could also pass a law stating that private universities must adhere to the same policies or forfeit all government funding, Smith said.
“It could happen,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s going to happen.”
The court will hear two cases — Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger — in which former applicants argue that they were denied admission to the University of Michigan and University of Michigan Law School in part because they are white. The Supreme Court has no fixed deadline for its decisions, but University of Michigan officials estimated that the Court will make its decision by the end of June.
In 1978, the Supreme Court heard a similar case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In that decision, the Court declared racial quotas unconstitutional, but encouraged universities to use other methods to admit diverse student bodies.
Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman said he believes the Court will rule in favor of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies.
“I hope, and expect, that the Supreme Court will see the wisdom in leaving colleges and universities some discretionary freedom to decide just how — and to what degree — race is taken into account in the all-important admissions decisions that not only determine the character of our campuses, but bear directly on the moral and political well-being of America itself,” Kronman said.
But Smith said he believes the Court will decide in favor of the plaintiffs.
“I would hope, but I don’t expect, that the Court will support the University of Michigan,” Smith said.
Yale President Richard Levin said the outcome of the case is difficult to predict.
“I’m hopeful that whatever they decide on the merits of the [University of] Michigan admissions process, they will still reaffirm the Bakke standards,” Levin said.
The hearing occurs two and a half months after President George W. Bush denounced the University of Michigan’s use of a point system in evaluating applicants. Bush said the system gives unfair weight to an applicant’s race, and for this reason his administration submitted a brief in support of the plaintiffs. One month after Bush’s announcement, more than 60 Fortune 500 corporations collaborated on a brief in support of the university.
Julie Peterson, associate vice president for media relations and public affairs at the University of Michigan, said the briefs filed by universities, labor unions, religious groups and corporations — totaling more than 100 — are important to the school’s case.
“Each of these groups articulated in a unique way why affirmative action at the university level is essential to their success,” Peterson said.
Peterson said she thinks the University of Michigan has a “good chance” of convincing the Supreme Court that affirmative action is valuable to higher education.
“I think we have put together the strongest possible case,” she said.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Education published a study advocating race-neutral alternatives in post-secondary education.
“Policies granting preferences on the basis of race and ethnicity raise constitutional questions and are increasingly being overturned in the courts,” the study said. “Moreover, voters in various jurisdictions have passed state and local initiatives restricting the use of racial preferences. These legal and policy trends mean that we must work together to look for new solutions.”