TESTING THE SYSTEM
December 22, 1997
Affirmative Action policies in California and Texas universities have been the focus of national debate over how to achieve diversity in higher education. But those are not the only schools facing challenges to the current system. Elizabeth Brackett, of WTTW Chicago, reports on the legal fight over the University of Michigan's admission policy.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Jennifer Gratz is enjoying her junior year at the University of Michigan at Dearborn. But this is not where she dreamed of going to college. She really wanted to attend the more prestigious University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She was devastated when she was put on the extended wait list for the fall of 1995.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
December 19, 1997:
President Clinton meets with leading conservative activists.
Reassessing our civic symbols .
December 3, 1997:
A background report on today's town hall meeting in Akron, OH.
November 25, 1997:
Cornel West and the NewsHour historians discuss the importance of civic symbols.
November 3, 1997:
The Supreme Court declines to hear a challenge to California's Proposition 209.
September 30, 1997:
Presidential race advisers discuss Clinton's One America initiative.
September 25, 1997:
A look back at school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas 40 years ago.
The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook and Angela Oh discuss race relations.
June 16, 1997:
Experts analyze President Clinton's speech on race relations.
May 20, 1997:
Betty Ann Bowser reports on the effects of dropping affirmative action programs in Texas universities.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Race Relations. and Education
The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice
JENNIFER GRATZ, Plaintiff: It made me question everything I've ever wanted to do. It made me question my talents. I was embarrassed, and I was upset. And I had to come up with a new plan of what I was going to do with my life and where I was going to go to school.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Gratz, the daughter of a police officer, graduated from a working class suburban Detroit high school with a 3.79 grade point average on a 4 point scale. Her ACT or American College Testing score was 25 out of a possible 36. Gratz believes she would have been accepted had she been a minority.
JENNIFER GRATZ: I believe I was racially discriminated against, and that's wrong.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Gratz is one of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed against the University of Michigan. The suit alleges that Gratz and all other white students who applied since 1995 and were rejected were discriminated against. The University of Texas lost a similar lawsuit last year. That suit and the University of Michigan's suit were filed by the Center for Individual Rights. Terry Pell, the center's senior counsel, says that court victory and other higher court decisions have been clear.
TERRY PELL, Center for Individual Rights: You may not take race into account if the sole purpose is to achieve diversity, if the sole purpose is to achieve some bureaucrat's idea of the proper racial mix of the entering class. That is unconstitutional. And school officials are going to have to look at their admission systems. They can no longer deny that this is an issue and that the court has spoken about this.
LEE BOLLINGER, President, University of Michigan: So the issue becomes: Who should make those judgments?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: University of Michigan President Lee Bollinger, who still teaches an undergraduate course, strongly defends the university's admissions policies.
LEE BOLLINGER: The primary reason for this was educational, a belief that in the society today and for the future that students in order to be prepared for that needed to be in an environment that reflected to some extent the diversity of American society, so it has a significant history. It is linked to Brown Vs. Board of Education. It is part of the Great Project in this country of trying to bring about equality. And it's rooted in a sense of what an education means today.
University of Michigan's historical pursuit of diversity.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The university began re-examining its admissions policies in the 1970's, when some students went on strike to protest against a lack of diversity on campus. In 1987, students occupied the administration building and demanded that the university live up to its affirmative action goals.
MALE: Are you going to meet with Band 3 no later than next week, or are you going to sit here and do nothing?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Since then, the university has made extensive efforts to increase diversity through outreach and recruitment programs.
FEMALE: If you're not going to get a taste of diversity here, then you're not going to know what to do with the diverse country that we do live in once you get out into the work world or whatever is beyond college.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Courses like this one on race and ethnicity are now required for all undergraduates in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Although the undergraduate student body at Ann Arbor is still 70 percent Caucasian, minority enrollment has doubled in the last 10 years. Almost 12 percent of undergraduates are Asian American; almost 9 percent African American; .7 percent Native American; and almost 5 percent of students don't categorize themselves, which may mean they are of mixed race.
"The outright intent to discriminate by race."
CARL COHEN, University of Michigan: (teaching class) But then I ask you whether that works in actual practice here.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Philosophy Professor Carl Cohen, who has been on the university faculty for 42 years, says the way the university increased its minority enrollment is wrong. He points to documents he obtained under the Freedom of Information Act detailing the university's admissions process.
CARL COHEN: I finally got a batch of documents and then more documents later on, and then more. And the sum of it all, Ms. Brackett, is shocking, shocking data, which the university wants to keep confidential. I've got some samples here, but, you see, there they put "confidential, internal use only." But, of course, that doesn't protect it from the "Freedom of Information Act" request.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What was shocking about it?
CARL COHEN: The outright intent to discriminate by race. They didn't only exhibit that they had discriminated by race but that they intended to do so; they make no bones about it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Cohen said he discovered a grid used to rank applicants on the basis of test scores and grades. The grid has two sets of codes for admission guidelines: one for whites and Asians, the other for minorities. The use of the grid is at the heart of the lawsuit pressed by Pell.
TERRY PELL: And they use two different sets of screening criteria based on the race of the applicant. They use one set of criteria for white applicants and another set of criteria for minority applicants. And these criteria mean very different things. For example, in the case of Jennifer Gratz, based on her grades and test scores, she was sent straight to the waiting list. A minority applicant with exactly the same credentials would have been accepted.
The admission process examined.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Walter Harrison, vice president for university relations, says the grid is only one part of the admissions process. He says most of the nearly 20,000 applicants who apply for the coveted 5400 or so spaces get a much closer look than just being placed on a grid. Harrison walked us through the application process.
WALTER HARRISON, University of Michigan: When your application comes, it'll be opened by a clerk. The clerk will look at your application to be sure it's complete. She will also look at your high school transcript and will recalculate your GPA in core courses, English, history, math, science, social science, those sorts of courses.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: On the grid there are instructions for clerks to automatically reject white or Asian students with low grades and test scores, but Harrison says it doesn't happen that way.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Can that clerk reject students?
WALTER HARRISON: No, we don't reject people automatically. There is a very small group of extremely high aptitude students with almost perfect grades and almost perfect GPA's that we will automatically accept. But that's a very tiny, small part. Everyone else gets reviewed by a counselor. She then goes through the application, looks at all the things, reads the essay. Then she will apply what we call SCUGA points. SCUGA points are the factors that we look at that measure this whole range of factors that we consider, in addition to grades and test scores.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Applicants get SCUGA points if they come from a top quality high school, or from an under-represented part of the state or country, if their immediate family attended the university, or if they are minorities. Next, the grade point is recalculated adding the SCUGA points, if any. Then the grid, with its different lines based on race, is used. But Harrison insists this is not a dual admissions policy.
WALTER HARRISON: It would be a dual admissions policy if we selected them from different pools. We just have one pool of applicants. We just look at different qualifications in those applications. Race is--we have been very up front about this--we consider race as a factor. We consider race as one of a number of factors. It's not the most important factor. It's not even close. GPA--that is to say your high school academics--would be the most important thing we look at. So in the case of Jennifer Gratz, in the year that she applied, there are white students with her grades and test scores who were accepted. And there are black students with her grades and test scores who were rejected. Why is that, you say--because of all these other factors and all these other things the counselor is looking at.
The constitutionality of race as a factor.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The university is careful to say that race is only one of many factors used in the admissions process. That's because in 1977 the Supreme Court found using race as a plus factor but not the sole factor acceptable. In that decision Justice Lewis Powell said the need for diversity was a sufficient reason to use race in admissions. Diversity stood as a justification for affirmative action admissions programs until the University of Texas case last year, when a circuit court threw it out. Pell says the court decision shocked the higher education community.
TERRY PELL: I think they've been in denial in the, you know, the year since the decision became final. They can't quite believe that what they've bee doing for the last 20 years is now quite clearly being held to be unconstitutional.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Center for Individual Rights has filed another suit against the University of Michigan's law school. Just as in the lawsuit against the undergraduate school, the suit claims the law school uses race, not just as a plus factor but as a determining factor in who gets admitted. The plaintiff in the law school case, 44-year-old Barbara Grutter, a health care consultant and mother of two, says she is in favor of diversity and would have contributed to it.
BARBARA GRUTTER, Plaintiff: I would, as I had indicated, contributed significantly to the diversity based on the fact that I'm atypical, a non-traditional student, and so I think what we're really talking about here is racial diversity and not diversity in the broad sense.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But President Bollinger doesn't feel that a truly diverse class can be shaped unless race is taking into account. He points to the big drop in minority enrollment in California and Texas after affirmative action was removed. There are only four African Americans in the Texas law school this year.
LEE BOLLINGER: The experiences of Texas and California sadly demonstrate that by removing race as a factor in the admissions process we probably will be heading towards a re-segregation of American higher education.
The student voices.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A group of students we assembled held sharply differing views on what their university's admissions policy should be.
FIONA ROSE, Student: We need to consider race because race is an important criterion in assembling intellectual diversity on campus, and because we have to do something to even the playing field.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE STUDENT: If you do truly want to level the playing field, college is not the place to level the playing field.
TERRELL COLE, Student: The numbers just prove that doors are closed off to minorities. And the system hasn't been changed, other than affirmative action policy. You get rid of that, I feel you just have re-segregation all the way down the line.
RABEH SOFFI, Student: There is no good discrimination and bad discrimination. I think that it's all the same concept and a hundred years of discrimination doesn't correct a hundred years of past discrimination. And there's no way I think that you can make up for what happened by administering polices that other students feel discriminated against.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Most legal scholars think the case will wind up in the Supreme Court. But even if it does not, it will undoubtedly be critical in determining the fate of affirmative action policies in universities across the country.