In a brief statement that firmly entered the White House into the most significant affirmative action case in years, the president said the Supreme Court should strike the Michigan system down.
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education, but the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed," Mr. Bush said. "At their core the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race."
The decision comes a day ahead of a deadline for the federal government to file a brief before the Supreme Court in the case. An administration official told the Associated Press the filing would narrowly target the Michigan policy, which assigns a point value to the applications of minority candidates.
During the announcement, the president said he understood university administrators' motivation to ensure a diverse student body.
"The motivation for this administration policy may be very good, but the result is discrimination. And that discrimination is very wrong," he said.
Although the decision brings his administration into conflict with many civil rights groups who say affirmative action corrects past discrimination, Mr. Bush called on all universities to come up with diversity programs that did not run afoul of the Constitution.
"Our government must work to make college more affordable for students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and because we're committed to racial justice, we must make sure that America's public schools offer a quality education to every child from every background," the president said.
Many Democrats blasted the decision, saying affirmative action policies remain necessary to ensure equal opportunity in education.
"I believe affirmative action is an essential tool in expanding educational opportunities to minorities," Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), who says he'll seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, told reporters.
Gephardt, who is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, said he plans to file a brief in support of the university's program.
Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus were even more critical of the president's move.
"As President Bush stands in front of the school house door to deny African Americans a higher education, his silence is deafening on many of the other issues that affect African Americans and other minorities every day," Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.) said.
The high court is set to hear the Michigan case later this year.