As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a pair of challenges to affirmative action that could have dramatic consequences for college admissions policies nationwide, partisans on both sides of the issue are hoping for the best and bracing for the worst.
Yet the related University of Michigan cases may not result in a definitive ruling on race-based college admissions policies. While the court could find against the continued use of such policies generally, it could also strike down one or both UM policies without addressing the constitutionality of race-based affirmative action in college admissions broadly.
"The court could directly overrule the Bakke decision or it could simply rule against the particulars of the University of Michigan's policies. It all depends on how a decision against the university would be worded," explains Berta Hernandez-Truyol, the Levin Mabie & Levin Professor of Law at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law.
In the landmark 1978 University of California Regents v. Bakke decision, the Supreme Court found that race could be a consideration in college admissions. The ambiguity of that decision, however, has led to conflicting opinions in federal appellate courts. The fifth and 11th circuit courts have ruled against the consideration of race in college admissions, while the ninth and sixth circuit courts have sanctioned it.
Even if the court were to uphold the constitutionality of UM's policies, state laws prohibiting race-based college admissions policies in California, Texas, and Florida would be unaffected. In other words, the best that proponents of campus diversity efforts can hope for is a validation of the status quo.
In the cases currently before the Supreme Court, two students – one an undergraduate applicant, the other a law school applicant – claim the University of Michigan denied them admission in favor of less-qualified minority applicants. Fifteen briefs filed on behalf of the plaintiffs, including one from the Bush administration, maintain that the university's admission system unfairly penalizes Anglo students and therefore is unconstitutional.
More than 300 organizations representing academia, Fortune 500 companies, and labor unions, in addition to top former military and civilian defense officials, filed 64 friend-of-the-court briefs endorsing the University of Michigan's policies. View statements from those filing amicus briefs in support of University of Michigan's admissions policies.
That such an eclectic group of organizations and individuals would voice support of affirmative action in college admissions speaks to the fundamental value of such policies in fostering economic well-being for all segments of the U.S. population, say affirmative action backers. All of those submitting briefs in support of affirmative action contend that a racially diverse, well-educated workforce is essential to the success of their operations.
"We are the most demographically complex country in the world. That complexity, which has been heralded as one of our strengths, must be played out in all domains. That's why we have these big corporations and former military officers filing amicus briefs. A world-class economy needs a world-class workforce," says Marta Tienda, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University.
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