Last month's U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the University of Michigan admissions cases brought forth both a collective sigh of relief and a celebratory spirit to thousands of college and university officials across the nation. After having confronted almost a decade of federal court litigation by opponents of race-conscious affirmative action, supporters began breathing a little easier knowing the use of race in higher education admissions survived legally, at least for the time being.
"It's a green light for the use of race in higher education admissions," says Beverly Ledbetter, the vice president and general counsel of Brown University in Providence, R.I. "The court has said that (race-conscious) affirmative action is an appropriate tool."
Supporters of race-conscious policies found solace in the court's decision in the University of Michigan undergraduate case ruling by virtue of the fact that only a handful of institutions are said to use a numerical points-based system similar to the one the court struck down. Instead, academic officials overwhelmingly reported that their schools rely on plans resembling what was upheld by the court in the University of Michigan law school.
"The Michigan undergraduate program is relatively unique and is not replicated by a significant number of schools," according to Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, a major association of U.S. universities.
Given that schools will have to jettison the purely mechanical, numerical points-based admissions systems, officials say a tougher test will rest with how to treat mixed programs that contain some form of points allocation for criteria, such as grades and test scores, yet leave out race or ethnicity in the initial calculations. The vulnerability of the mixed program surfaces when race and ethnicity eventually factor in as plusses for under-represented minorities.
Nevertheless, in the face of condemnations and threats by opponents of race-conscious affirmative action, academic officials have begun taking careful stock of their admissions policies. "The guidance given by the court makes the test a little narrower. There's still some questions," says Benjamin Rawlins, the general counsel of the Oregon University System.
Vowing to fight race-conscious affirmative action, opponents of race-conscious admissions have promised more litigation and campaigns to launch state-based voter initiatives to ban the use of race in academic admissions.
"It's a painful decision. I think it sends the worst possible message," says Dr. Shelby Steele, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an opponent of race-conscious affirmative action.
Steele says the failure of the court to abolish race-conscious affirmative action amounts to "colonial" treatment by guilt-ridden Whites of Blacks, Latinos and American Indians, who the establishment seemingly deems incapable of rising to the same set of standards as Whites and Asians.
"Whites and Asians get better and better at meeting those standards while Blacks and Latinos get worse because they're not expected to meet them," Steele says.
On Monday, June 23, the day of the Supreme Court's affirmative action rulings, the mood at the annual national conference of the National Association of College and University Attorneys (NACUA) in Minneapolis turned from one of anticipation to one of elation and celebration, according to attendees.
"There was a feeling of relief and optimism that came over the NACUA members," says Brown University's Ledbetter.
As the body of private and university-employed lawyers on whom colleges and universities rely for legal advice, NACUA sponsored a special forum the next day on the court's ruling so that members could begin studying the rulings' contents. Rawlins, who moderated the forum, says it's imperative for schools to begin immediate assessment of their admissions programs. …