Not Just Black & White: Their Classmate Made History; They Just Wanted to Be Doctors. Now, as the Supreme Court Prepares to Redefine Affirmative Action for the First Time in a Quarter Century, the Class of 1982 Looks Back at the Challenges It Has Overcome and the Obstacles That Still Remain

By Rosenberg, Debra | Newsweek, June 30, 2003 | Go to article overview

Not Just Black & White: Their Classmate Made History; They Just Wanted to Be Doctors. Now, as the Supreme Court Prepares to Redefine Affirmative Action for the First Time in a Quarter Century, the Class of 1982 Looks Back at the Challenges It Has Overcome and the Obstacles That Still Remain


Rosenberg, Debra, Newsweek


Byline: Debra Rosenberg

Sylvia Shaw had encountered plenty of obstacles on the road to medical school. But when she arrived for the first day of classes at the University of California, Davis, in the fall of 1978, she found one more: a throng of protesters and camera crews. They were there to mark the arrival of her famous classmate, Allan Bakke, a white student who'd sued for reverse discrimination after he was twice rejected--and got in only after his case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Bakke had complained about students like Shaw, an African-American who was accepted under a special-quota program. Now a Los Angeles endocrinologist, Shaw still favors giving the disadvantaged a boost. But she has also come to agree with many Americans that the current system has problems. "It probably needs to be around in some other form that's not so politically charged," she says. "It needs to be redesigned."

That could happen soon. For the first time since the Bakke case, which banned outright quotas like those at Davis, the Supreme Court is wading into an emotional dispute over affirmative action at universities. Any day now, the court is expected to decide whether the University of Michigan's minority-recruitment efforts violate federal law. Mindful of the Bakke decision, which allows schools to consider race as a "plus factor" as long as they avoid quotas, admissions officers at Michigan tried to rely on a "point" system for undergraduates that awards extra credit to minorities. At its law school, Michigan aimed for what it called a "critical mass" of minority students, but not a set quota. Now the court is considering whether those efforts went too far. Depending on how the court rules, the decision--which could have sweeping consequences for public universities, private colleges and even employers--could preserve the murky status quo, eliminate the use of --race in admissions altogether or chart a new course somewhere in between.

Whatever the justices decide, the true impact may not be clear for years--or even decades. That's clear from talking to the class that started it all--the students who graduated from medical school with Allan Bakke in 1982. NEWSWEEK revisited the final class admitted under the old quota system. Though Bakke himself did not respond to repeated interview requests, 19 of his 97 fellow graduates spoke out, many for the first time. Bakke, 38 when he finally entered Davis, has retired from his anesthesiology practice, but many of his classmates are now at the peak of their careers. Some benefited from Davis's special-admissions program. Others were hurt by it. They've come forward to discuss how their views have changed in the 25 years since Bakke landed in their lecture hall. Like most Americans, all have complicated--and sometimes contradictory--feelings about what role, if any, race should play in deciding who gets in and who doesn't.

Sylvia Shaw, for one, needed the extra help that Davis offered. The first in her family to graduate from college, Shaw can trace one set of great-great-grandparents back to slavery. After she finished at Loyola Marymount with a B average, she was rejected at every medical school to which she applied. She took a year off to do a research fellowship and, when she applied again, Davis offered her a spot. Despite the Bakke controversy, Shaw felt welcome at Davis. "They wanted you to get in and stay in," she says. "They kind of coddled you because of the rarity of an African-American in medical school." Now chief of endocrinology at Rancho Los Amigos, a rehabilitation hospital in Los Angeles County, she treats mostly minority and indigent patients. "If you don't groom doctors of various ethnic communities, who's going to care for those communities?" Shaw asks.

That was exactly the type of question Davis had hoped to address with its minority-admissions program. Established shortly after the school was founded in the late 1960s, the program had a good record of admitting minorities. …

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Not Just Black & White: Their Classmate Made History; They Just Wanted to Be Doctors. Now, as the Supreme Court Prepares to Redefine Affirmative Action for the First Time in a Quarter Century, the Class of 1982 Looks Back at the Challenges It Has Overcome and the Obstacles That Still Remain
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