Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2002 / 14 Teves, 5763
Back to the admissions morass
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | With the acceptance of two Michigan cases, the U.S. Supreme Court returned to one of its most divisive areas: the use of race in graduate and undergraduate admissions. This comes decades after its controversial decision in University of California Regents vs. Bakke, in which the court struck down racial quotas in admissions but vaguely allowed race as one of the "criteria." In large part, the court is returning to a morass of its own making.
The 1978 Bakke decision was clear as to what is impermissible under the Constitution, but not what is permissible. Clearly, schools cannot adopt the type of race-based quota system that prevented Allan Bakke from being admitted to medical school. However, in suggesting that race could be used as a criterion, the ruling left courts to grapple with the obvious question of how much weight could be given to such a criterion.
The resulting confusion was magnified by the court's later rejection of race-conscious systems in other areas like federal contracts, suggesting that Bakke may no longer hold a majority on the court. In reviewing the Michigan standards, the court may venture into one of the most carefully guarded areas of universities: the specific weight given to race in admissions. School officials often downplay the importance of race in their selection process, insisting that race gives only a slight advantage to otherwise equally qualified students. Yet the same educators insist that if they do not use race as a factor, minority admissions will plummet. The statistics in these cases indicate that race remains a very significant factor.
In the Michigan undergraduate admissions process, 20 points are awarded on the basis of race (for African Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans only). This is eight more points than the weight given to the SAT score viewed as the standard, objective ranking for admissions. It is also the difference between a student with an A average and a student with a B average -- a huge difference in a top-ranked school.
In 1991, a Georgetown University law student triggered a controversy when he revealed that the median LSAT score for African American students was 36, seven points lower than for whites. That same year, the average score for nonminority students at Texas Law School was in the 92nd percentile, as opposed to the 55th-percentile average of African Americans.
These are not slight differences and raise significant questions as to whether admissions policies are "narrowly tailored" to achieve a compelling state interest in diversity. Moreover, they belie the notion that race is a relatively minor element in the admissions decision.
For a faculty member to even question the fairness of a race-based criterion is to be seen as the local "Bull" Connor standing in the path of racial harmony. More important, there is a fear that criticism could hurt minority students. However, the weight given to race at Michigan should be cause for concern in a society that strives to be colorblind. Students outside the selected race groups can be denied admission on the basis of a status that they cannot change.
A policy of race-conscious admissions is an easy alternative to the more difficult task of recruiting more minority applicants and spending money on high school programs to improve minority education. Often such programs are adopted only after courts bar the use of race-conscious admissions. Georgia recently implemented such a program after its race-conscious admissions process was struck down. With better recruiting, the state increased the number of minorities in its 2002 class without the use of the old race-conscious process. Seven states, including California, have outlawed race as an admissions factor and are experimenting with programs to increase the number of minority students.
There is no question that diversity is a vital element in education,
including diversity in religion, age, gender and economic background.
However, when it is artificially engineered, it can undermine the most
essential component of the education process: the notion that students will
be valued by who they are and not what they represent.
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