For the first time since 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it would revisit the issue of affirmative action in college admissions by hearing two cases brought against the University of Michigan. The court’s decision could significantly change admissions practices at many universities, but Yale administrators and students said they are unsure if the court’s actions will have an impact on Yale.
The University of Michigan is facing three plaintiffs in two separate cases. In the first, Grutter v. Bollinger, Barbara Grutter claims the University of Michigan Law School rejected her, in part, because she was white. In the second, Gratz v. Bollinger, undergraduate applicants Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher argue that the admission of black and Hispanic applicants with academic records similar to theirs violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection. This guarantee only holds for public institutions, but under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, private universities that receive federal money are barred from racial discrimination as well.
Yale President Richard Levin said the impact of the cases on Yale could vary greatly, depending on whether the Supreme Court decides to uphold the status quo, which permits admissions offices to consider race when selecting applicants.
“Whether it has implications for Yale or not will very much depend on how the court decides it,” Levin said. “Universities such as Yale are very comfortable with the previous Supreme Court decision in the Bakke case.”
The 1978 Supreme Court decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke made racial quotas illegal in admissions but encouraged universities to pursue diversity.
Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman said he hopes the Supreme Court will recognize the legal legitimacy of pursuing diversity.
“This case may have really important consequences not just for Yale, but for the entire landscape of higher education in America,” Kronman said. “If the Supreme Court were to say it is impermissible for a college or university to count race in any fashion and to any degree in its admissions, that would have tremendous and unambiguously detrimental consequences for higher education in America.”
But Kronman said he thinks it is likely the Supreme Court will recognize the promotion of diversity “by appropriate and narrow measures” as an important and constitutionally protected goal.
The Law School’s unique admissions process — in which small groups of faculty members evaluate portions of the applications — allows it to accept students without using specific guidelines that could potentially be attacked in the Supreme Court’s ruling, Kronman said.
“We’re very lucky, maybe uniquely lucky in being able to do without the kinds of mechanical procedures and principles that other schools need to use in order to make their admissions decisions and just on that account we’re less likely to get into trouble,” he said.
University of Michigan spokesperson Julie Peterson said the Supreme Court’s ruling would have an effect on schools like Yale.
“It is likely to affect all other universities, public and private, because the way the law applies, any universities that accept federal money are subject to it,” Peterson said. “It could go beyond admissions. It might have implications for financial aid, recruitment programs, summer visitation — potentially the impact could be very broad.”
Peterson said losing the cases would severely impact the ability of universities nationwide to maintain diverse student bodies.
“We’re going to do our best to argue before the court that it’s essential to consider race,” Peterson said. “We’re telling the court that a decision to overturn Bakke and disallow any consideration of race, even the most careful one like we use, would effectively resegregate education.”
University of Michigan Law School Dean Jeffrey Lehman said in a statement that the Law School’s current policy acknowledges the realities of American race relations.
“American society has not yet reached the point where a rigidly colorblind admissions process will produce more than token levels of enrollment of students from some minority groups at the most selective law schools,” he said.
Some universities — such as California state schools — do not explicitly use affirmative action, but promote diversity by accepting top students from all high schools, including underprivileged ones. But such programs are not practical for selective, private universities, Peterson said.
“That program is based on segregated high school systems in their state and it doesn’t really have any relevance to a university like Yale because your university recruits nationally and internationally,” she said.
Julianna Bentes ’04, co-president of the Black Students Alliance at Yale, said she thinks Yale could do more to promote diversity than simply having race-conscious admissions policies.
“[Yale] probably does a lot less than other colleges,” she said. “A more diverse faculty, additional funding for cultural centers and increased support for students of color on campus, greater numbers [would help]. The more you feel like you’re a very small minority, the harder it is.”