Supreme Court upholds affirmative action

The University will continue to use race as one of many admissions factors following the U.S. Supreme Court’s two landmark affirmative action rulings in late June. In the decisions, the court reaffirmed the affirmative action policies, upholding a 1978 ruling, but struck down the University of Michigan’s strict point-based system.

GW admissions officials said they consider race and ethnicity among many other factors when offering admittance, but do not use a mechanical point system. Administrators said they will continue to use the same criteria in next year’s process.

“There will be no changes whatsoever … we have never had that kind of formulaic approach, we take a more holistic approach,” said Michael O’Leary, senior associate director of admissions. “There is no ranking process; we are looking for the best and brightest students.”

Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak, who oversees the admissions department, said the University strives for a diverse student body by looking at everything from test scores to geographic background in addition to race.

“(Race) is clearly not the number one factor in admissions but it’s not last … it’s one out of several factors that are considered,” he said. “(The Supreme Court) reinforced what we already generally attempt to do.”

The Supreme Court released its rulings in two cases June 23: Grutter v. Bollinger, a suit against the University of Michigan’s law school, and Gratz v. Bollinger, involving one of its undergraduate schools. Both cases arose from suits filed by applicants who were rejected by the respective University of Michigan schools, alleging race-conscious admissions discriminated against non-minorities.

The court ruled 5-4 favoring Michigan in the Grutter case, noting that race-conscious admissions are still important in promoting diversity.

“In a society like our own … race unfortunately still matters,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion. “In order to cultivate a set of leaders with a legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”

But the court found the undergraduate admissions process, which automatically awarded points toward admission for a person’s race, was unconstitutional, and ruled in favor of the applicants in the second case.

The University of Michigan undergraduate admissions department awarded minority applicants 20 points on a 150-point scale of admissions. In comparison, Michigan officials gave out five points for a perfect SAT score. The court decided 6-3 that the system did not give enough individual consideration to applicants.

Although GW received more than 18,400 applications this year, a record high, Chernak and O’Leary said officials look at each applicant, using dozens of criteria in their decision-making process.

But Chernak said administrators are facing an additional challenge because an increasing number of students are choosing not to indicate their race or ethnicity on applications.

“There is a growing sensitivity among people who are considered minorities that they want to get in on their own merits, not their ethnic background,” Chernak said.

Despite the trend, Chernak said GW is continuing to work toward recruiting and admitting a diverse student body. He said the University’s priority is to admit students who will enroll if accepted and will go on to graduate at GW.

“One of the hardest things to do is fill seats after attrition and one of our objectives is to increase retention from 92 to 95 percent,” he said.

O’Leary said he would rate GW’s effort to recruit and admit a diverse student body a B+.

Last year, about 14 percent of the student body was Asian, 8 percent was Hispanic and 6 percent was black, according to GW statistics.

“By way of effort, we are doing a fine job, but as the level of competition increases, we find ourselves with new challenges,” O’Leary said.

GW was named one of the top 25 best colleges for black students in an article by Black Enterprise magazine earlier this year. But GW is launching an effort to recruit more “under represented populations,” he said.

O’Leary said the office is working with a group of 10 to 12 multi-cultural students who are set to conduct outreach. They will participate in area college nights, call prospective multi-cultural students and act as hosts during April visit days.

Black Student Union President Omar Woodard, a major proponent of affirmative action, said he supports any University efforts to increase diversity.

“It is beneficial to all students … to be in a more diverse environment, to get involve and meet people from various places … it’s part of the learning experience,” he said.

Woodard called the GW admissions office “very supportive” but said he sees a “significant shortage in the numbers of black students,” adding that the University’s undergraduate population was once 8 percent black.

He said he generally supports the Supreme Court rulings, but with a couple caveats. He said he is upset there is no obligation for universities to use race as an admissions factor. He also said that the 25-year time limit the court proposed in the Grutter decision was of concern.

In the Grutter opinion, O’Connor wrote that the court expects “the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today (in 25 years).”

“If you realize that Jim Crow laws were in effect only 40-50 years ago … and you think 25 years from now, things will be peachy keen, I don’t think so,” Woodard said.

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg was unavailable for comment last week but, following the ruling, he told the Washington Times that D.C. universities are “a melting pot of America,” and said he would have written the same opinions if he were a member of the court.

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