A case with the potential to affect the national debate over affirmative action went before a federal court of appeals Thursday afternoon and may eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.
Two cases brought by unsuccessful white applicants to the University of Michigan were heard by all nine active judges in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The court has not yet ruled on the cases.
One case was brought by Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, who applied unsuccessfully to Michigan’s largest undergraduate college, the College of Literature, Science and the Arts in 1995 and 1997, respectively. The other was brought by Barbara Grutter, an unsuccessful applicant to the law school in 1997.
The plaintiffs have said that Michigan’s policy unlawfully discriminates against them and that race should not determine admissions. Michigan has countered that its policy promotes the educational benefits of a racially diverse environment while ensuring that race is not a major factor in determining admissions.
Michigan does not, for example, use a quota system, so it said that it is in accordance with a landmark 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.
Michigan’s admissions office uses a points system to consider applicants, according to the university’s Web site. For example, students who write good essays receive three points and those with perfect SAT scores receive 12 points. Students who are members of underrepresented minorities receive 20 points. The selection index for Michigan’s main undergraduate college is 150 points.
Back on Michigan’s campus in Ann Arbor, the case has thrust affirmative action into the spotlight.
“You can’t walk anywhere without getting hassled to sign a petition to support it,” said Mike Georgoff, a Michigan freshman.
Freshman Joshua Sledge said he agrees with Michigan about diversity’s effect on the school’s educational environment.
“I know from experience that diversity can make classes on matters such as law and other social sciences so much better,” he said.
But Georgoff said he does not support affirmative action.
“I suppose part of it is the fact that I’m not a minority, but I hate knowing that I have to work that much harder than someone else just to have an equal chance of being admitted to a quality university,” Georgoff said. “Granted, many minorities have other issues to deal with — poverty, socioeconomic status, discrimination, etc. — but I don’t believe that it’s the university’s responsibility to attempt to fix society by altering odds for admission.”
Michigan freshman Nidhip Patel, who said he is not a member of an underrepresented minority, said he supports affirmative action.
“I don’t believe [Michigan’s] policy is perfect in any way, but completely getting rid of affirmative action would definitely be a step back from achieving any type of social equality,” Patel said.
Yale College Council issues coordinator Howard Han ’02, who recently participated in a student panel on diversity at Yale, said affirmative action is not a permanent solution.
“In a perfect world, you wouldn’t need affirmative action. There is a history of discrimination in a fair number of places in this country, though,” Han said.
Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Richard Shaw said the University supports affirmative action.
“We are sensitive to all students applying to Yale,” Shaw said.