TOPICS > Politics

Affirmative Action

June 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: The rulings on affirmative action. We begin with some background by Spencer Michels.

SPENCER MICHELS: The two lawsuits against the University of Michigan were the biggest affirmative action cases to go before the Supreme Court in decades. One involved Barbara Grutter, who applied to the university’s law school seven years ago. The former healthcare consultant, who was 43 at the time, was rejected despite what she considered strong qualifications. Grutter said she didn’t get in because she’s white.

BARBARA GRUTTER: I think that I was discriminated against in the admission process, very specifically, because I believe they have different criteria based on race.

SPENCER MICHELS: Law school administrators said they considered race as one of several factors for admission. Jeffrey Lehman is the dean.

JEFFREY LEHMAN: It’s not a color-blind society. Opportunity is not distributed without regard to race, and therefore in order to have a racially integrated student body, it is necessary to pay attention to race in the admissions process.

SPENCER MICHELS: But in 1997, Grutter challenged that policy and sued Michigan. Four years later, a federal judge ruled that using race as a factor in making admissions decisions was unconstitutional. That decision was later overruled on appeal.

The second case involved Jennifer Gratz. She applied to the university’s undergraduate campus at Ann Arbor in ’95, and was wait-listed. Gratz, who later went to Michigan’s Dearborn campus, became a plaintiff in a class- action lawsuit against the university, which uses a points system to screen applicants.

The 150-point index awarded points for different factors, including academic excellence, financial need, and race. She noted that Michigan-Ann Arbor accepted African Americans and Latinos with credentials similar to hers. She spoke to the “NewsHour” in 1997.

JENNIFER GRATZ: I believe I was racially discriminated against, and that’s wrong.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Gratz lost. A different federal judge sided with Michigan, citing the “educational benefits” of a racially diverse student body. The Bush administration filed a brief in the cases. In January, the president explained that his administration’s brief would argue that race-based admissions policies are unconstitutional.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Quota systems that use race to include or exclude people from higher education and the opportunities it offers are divisive, unfair, and impossible to square with the Constitution.

SPENCER MICHELS: Today, the Supreme Court upheld the law school admissions policy, but rejected the undergraduate system. Outside the court, both sides responded to the mixed decision. Terry Pell of the Center for Individual Rights represented students in both cases.

TERRY PELL: I think what we are seeing today is the beginning of the end of race preferences, taken together today both decisions raise the bar higher and make it more difficult and more legally uncertain for schools to use race. In theory it’s possible to take race into account as one of many factors. The reality is that in practice, taking race into account quickly becomes a smokescreen for the sort of mechanical quotas that the court struck down in the undergraduate case.

SPENCER MICHELS: John Payton was a lawyer for the University of Michigan in the law school case.

JOHN PAYTON: You know, this lawsuit was brought– both of these lawsuits were brought to prohibit any use of race in the admissions process. The Supreme Court has rejected that challenge. How the undergrad school goes about using race, obviously we have to go back and make some adjustments in that. But I think that we do have a road map on how to do that, and I don’t think it’s going to be too difficult.

SPENCER MICHELS: Following the decisions, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman pledged to modify the undergraduate admissions system.