Will Race Lawsuits Spill over to Ivy League? Top Colleges Are Plotting Strategies to Defend Longstanding Affirmative-Action Policies

Article excerpt

Jennifer Gratz remembers the sharp anticipation she felt as a high school senior, ripping open the admissions letter from her chosen college - and her swift disappointment.

"Can we sue them?" she gamely quipped to her father. They managed a laugh. But the joke turned serious when Ms. Gratz, a National Honor Society student with a 3.79 grade point average, found that minority students with lower grades and test scores had been admitted to the same college that rejected her.

So in October, Gratz and another once-rejected student, Patrick Hamacher, sued the University of Michigan, charging its admissions policies illegally discriminated on the basis of race. Both individuals are white. Their lawsuit was one of three this year, including one this month, attacking affirmative action policies in admissions. Those suits follow a landmark federal court ruling last year that made race preferences in college admissions illegal in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The impact of this legal trend reaches well beyond those states and public universities that were sued, observers say. In fact, the biggest eventual influence may not be on public universities but on the nation's most elite private colleges and universities and their carefully cultivated rainbow of racial diversity. "We're watching carefully the development of these cases across the US and we're concerned," says Willis Stetson Jr., dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school in Philadelphia. "We're not viewing this in any cavalier manner." Frank Wu, a professor at Howard University School of Law in Washington, agrees there is cause for concern. "The assault on affirmative action in public universities will almost certainly affect private universities, including the prestigious 'Ivy League' universities," he says. "This will happen sooner, not later." Thanks in part to race-based "tip factors" in admissions policies, the Ivy League and other highly competitive colleges nationwide have since the 1960s turned into scholarly enclaves of ethnic diversity, observers say. But it is something those colleges must struggle to maintain. "The top 25 schools are all competing for the same kids," says Michele Hernandez, former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., who wrote a book on Ivy League admissions procedures (see story, right). "None of those schools wants to have only 2 percent black enrollment at the end of the year. It's not a quota - but Dartmouth just does not want to have 2 percent black enrollment while Harvard has 8 percent." Such intense competition causes top private colleges to give breaks to some minority applicants that other applicants do not get, she says. And Thomas Kane, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who has studied the demand-supply relationship between colleges and minorities, agrees. "You will find it is the elite schools, the top 20 percent, that are doing most of the racial preference," he says. He attributes this phenomenon to "supply and demand" - a few high-performing minority college applicants being chased by many top schools. Standing firm at the top So far the nation's top colleges are standing firm on affirmative action. As the Association of American Universities stated recently: There is a "continuing need to take into account a wide range of considerations - including ethnicity, race, and gender - as we evaluate the students whom we select for admission." Private college officials rush to point out, too, that their admissions procedures are much different than the public universities that have been sued. They involve individual assessment that incorporates race as just one factor in an overall portrait. Also, they point out, they are private. The issue of federal funds Yet almost all private colleges also receive millions of dollars of federally guaranteed student loans and research funding. …