December 29, 2000

Judge upholds use of Race as a factor in University of Michigan admissions

By Lisa Koivu and
Jaimie Winkler
Michigan Daily (U. Michigan)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- A federal judge Thursday (12/13/00) upheld the University of Michigan's use of race as a factor in undergraduate admissions.

In his opinion ruling on a lawsuit three years in the making, U.S. District Judge Patrick Duggan wrote that "diversity constitutes a compelling governmental interest in the context of higher education justifying the use of race as one factor in the admissions process."

University President Lee Bollinger has fought to preserve the University's policies since the cases were filed less than a year after he took office.

"I'm just very gratified that this is the way things have turned out. This is a great decision for higher education and society. The central holding in my view is the absolute clear affirmation of the system that has been in place," Bollinger said.

Nearly one month after the University and its opponents argued proposed motions for summary judgment, Duggan released his opinion upholding the use of race as a factor in admissions in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. In doing so, Duggan decided that no trial was necessary.

He referred repeatedly to the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision, which first allowed using race as a factor in areas where there is a compelling interest for diversity.

In the opinion, based on the briefs submitted by the University, CIR and a group of intervening students, the court ruled the current system is constitutional, but the former "grid" system, used from 1995-98, is unconstitutional. Justice Lewis Powell's opinion in the 1978 Bakke case also states that only a plus-factor system, where prospective minority students receive a boost on their applications, would be constitutional. Powell ruled that a system of quotas is not constitutional.

Duggan also built off of the most recent affirmation of that decision, Smith v. University of Washington. Duggan writes that although his assessment isn't identical to the Ninth Circuit's interpretation of Justice Lewis Powell's opinion in the Bakke case, "this Court reaches the same ultimate conclusion."

The University's challenger, the Center for Individual Rights, cited other cases in Texas and Georgia that struck down the use of race as a factor in those states. Duggan writes that these courts "contend that, as a matter of law, 'diversity' and 'academic freedom' are not compelling governmental interests that can ever justify the use of race in the admission process. This Court disagrees."

CIR will likely appeal Duggan's decision to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, its spokesman said. Many think this case is bound for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The current admissions system assigns points to qualities that the University values. Academics -- including grade point average, standardized test scores, high school curriculum and an applicant's high school's reputation -- can account for up to 98 of a possible 150 points of the admissions worksheet. Students can also receive 20 points for being either an underrepresented minority or socio-economic disadvantage, among other things.

The grid system to which Duggan referred used a student's computed selection index score to determine acceptance or denial. The grids show strong discrepancies between the qualifications of minority and non-minority students.

For example, the opinion cites in 1995 and 1996 that by applying the girds the University would automatically reject non-minority applicants with a GPA of 3.2-3.3 and an ACT score of 18-20, while a minority with the same qualifications "would have most likely been admitted," Duggan writes.

Duggan's judgment also granted qualified immunity to former University President James Duderstadt and Bollin-ger. Neither Duderstadt nor Bollinger can be held personally responsible and indicted individually.

In addition to arguing against compelling interest, interest, CIR lawyers argued that through its admissions policies, the University has admitted minority students that are underqualified. Duggan disagreed.

"The Court agrees with the University Defendants' assertion that all who are ultimately admitted to the LSA are 'qualified' academically, and neither Plaintiffs nor this Court seek to imply that those minorities who are admitted under the lower admissions standards are not academically qualified for admission," the opinion stated.

Curt Levy, CIR director of legal and public affairs, said the ruling confirms that the University discriminates based on race in its existing admissions policies. Levy said that by saying the 1995-98 policy was unconstitutional, the judge affirmed his clients' assertions.

"In regards to the plaintiffs it's a total victory. In regards to the case, it's a partial victory," Levy said.

"We're obviously happy that the plaintiffs were vindicated in that the court found that they were discriminated against because of their race," Levy said.

But University administrators claimed the victory for themselves. "This is an unequivocal victory for us. He held as fully constitutional our current system. The use of race as we do it now is completely qualified," University Provost Nancy Cantor said.

LSA Dean Shirley Neuman said she believes that the University's practices ensure diversity.

"That ruling enables us to continue to create the kinds of diversity at the University of Michigan which make this such a stimulating environment in which to study and to teach," Neuman said.

Return to the Frontpage