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IN THE NEWS - June 28, 2003: Supreme Court Upholds Use of Race at Universities - 2003-06-27


This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, In the News.

The Supreme Court says American colleges and universities can use race among other considerations to decide which students to accept. But the court also says there are limits to how much consideration schools should give to race in the admissions process.

The high court ruled Monday in two separate cases that involved the University of Michigan and its law school. Three white students brought the actions. They said programs aimed at creating a racially balanced student population were unfair to whites.

Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher had been denied admission to the undergraduate program. Barbara Grutter was rejected by the Michigan law school. They learned that African Americans and other minorities were admitted with lower scores than whites. They argued that this violated the Fourteen Amendment to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of nineteen-sixty-four. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal treatment under the law.

In a five-to-four vote, the Supreme Court ruled that the Michigan law school policies are constitutional. The court said those policies consider race in a narrow way and do not violate the constitutional right of equal protection.

But in the second ruling, the court decided six to three that the Michigan undergraduate program violates the Constitution. This program gave blacks, Hispanics and American Indians twenty points toward the one-hundred points needed to guarantee admission. The court said this was unfair to white applicants.

Opponents of affirmative action say such programs put race and ethnicity ahead of ability. They say admissions policies should be race-neutral. Supporters say affirmative action helps balance a student population. This diversity, they say, creates a better learning environment for everyone.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the majority opinion to uphold the policies of the Michigan law school. She provided the fifth and deciding vote. She also agreed with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the four other justices who voted to strike down the undergraduate program.

Many critics of affirmative action say they regret that the court did not go further to restrict racial preferences. Supporters call the rulings a victory in the struggle for racial diversity in American higher education.

The two Michigan cases are the most important affirmative action rulings since what is known as the Bakke decision twenty-five years ago. The Supreme Court ruled then, as now, that schools could consider race but within limits.

For one thing, Justice O'Connor says in the rulings this week that such policies must be limited in time. In her words, "The court expects that twenty-five years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary."

This VOA Special English program In the News was written by Cynthia Kirk. This is Steve Ember.