In 1995 Jennifer Gratz applied to the University of Michigan for undergraduate school. Gratz considered herself a qualified candidate for admission and was surprised when a Michigan rejection letter came in the mail.
According to Michigan admission officers, African American and Latino students with Gratz’s exact grades and SAT scores were guaranteed a place in the class while two of three white applicants with similar marks, like Gratz, were rejected. Gratz and two other rejected white students have filed suit against the University of Michigan citing violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination by federally funded institutions. The plaintiffs argue that Michigan uses admissions criteria that systematically shut out whites in favor of minorities with the same or lower grades and test scores.
This marks the beginning of the largest debate concerning affirmative action since the 1978 California Board of Regents v. Bakke case. The Supreme Court will soon decide if a race-cognizant university admissions procedure, intended to promote racial and ethnic diversity, illegally discriminates against white applicants. The Court should maintain the values of diversity at all cost – it should be weary of stripping higher education of its only real tool to cultivate diversity.
President George W. Bush has stirred the debate by coming out against affirmative action, but he has failed to offer an alternative to foster diversity, which even he claims is essential.
“I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education,” Bush said. “But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race.”
It would be nice if colleges could magically create a diverse campus population without considering race in admission, but no one has thought of a way to do it without some form of affirmative action. Though he contends differently, Bush’s plan of ending affirmative action would no doubt be a step backward in the push for diversity.
While the goals of Michigan’s admission procedures are pure in nature, its blunt system of adding points to each minority application is a step too far. Applications need to be viewed as individuals – skin color or heritage alone should not earn an application higher marks, but may be a factor in acceptance along with other considerations like overcoming adversity and meeting potential.
Schools should continue to consider race in admissions as at least a small factor in the process. Diversity is so highly valued in academia that it is likely that even if the Supreme Court rules against Michigan, colleges will find a way to get applicants to reveal their race without directly asking them. The positive effects of diversity in the classroom, as well as in the dorm rooms, far outweigh the negative impact of affirmative action on white applicants.
The fundamental problem that requires universities to consider race in admission is the inequity between whites and minorities in availability of proper primary and secondary education. Many minority students are exposed to a sub-par education, where even the brightest of students are disadvantaged when taking standardized tests that may or may not be culturally biased. Until this inequity is tackled on the grand scale of social reform, affirmative action-like programs are needed to even have a chance at creating culturally diverse campuses.