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The dilemma of race in college admissions (San Francisco Chronicle) June 12, 2002

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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This spring, the most important decisions about university admissions were not made by campus officials but by nine federal judges in Cincinnati. In the most closely watched court case of its kind in more than 20 years, the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decided 5-4 that the University of Michigan could continue using race as a factor in admissions. With federal appellate courts now in disagreement on the matter, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rightly predicts that U.S. Supreme Court review of this controversial issue will come sooner than later.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in University of California Regents vs. Bakke in 1978 that colleges cannot use racial quotas in admissions, but many consider ethnicity as a “plus factor,” campus admissions policies have been challenged in federal courts with split results.

All eyes turned to the legal challenges to the University of Michigan admissions policy because they seemed to present the issues in the clearest legal light. In Grutter vs. Bollinger, an unsuccessful white applicant to the University of Michigan Law School sued the university, claiming that she would have been admitted had she been a minority applicant. The U.S. District Court held that the university’s policy sought a “critical mass” of minority students to establish diversity, and that the resulting preference for ethnic minority students was unconstitutional. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found the policy constitutional and reversed the lower court decision.

The varying opinions of federal courts, and the narrow 5-4 decision, reflect deeply divided feelings in America about policies favoring ethnic minority students. They remind us that managing the central dilemmas of American social and political life is difficult work.

Stanford University education professor Larry Cuban argues that both public and private life revolve around dilemmas — situations where there are two or more values we want to preserve, but that do not always work well together. As a parent of teenagers, for example, do I want to protect them or give them freedom The answer, of course, is both, though the balance is often tricky to find, and it changes over time.

The role of ethnicity in university admissions is another of those difficult dilemmas. Do we want to admit students based upon their individual merit and qualifications? Yes, of course; we value that as a society. Do we want to educate a broad diversity of students in our universities? Again, for educational, economic, social and moral reasons, the answer is yes. But making those values work together is a huge challenge.

Affirmative action and other forms of racial preference are simply tools we have used to try to manage this difficult dilemma. In an ideal world, the only preferences would be based on individual performance. But in the real world, kids do not come to the college admissions starting line having had equal opportunities. Diverse educational environments do not simply happen on their own.

Many conservatives and some courts have figured out that affirmative action and racial preferences are flawed, and they are right. But simply pointing out the defects in the tools we use is not enough. We need to be looking for the next generation of tools. Taking the top percentage of students from every high school is one alternative, but we need more. Until there are better tools, we cannot give up on the ones we have.

Managing the dilemma of college admissions is the work of educators, not judges. Courts should set the outer boundaries, as the U.S. Supreme Court did in Bakke. The Supreme Court should take the Michigan case not only to reaffirm that race is still an appropriate element of admissions, but what the limits of that preference might be. After that, let’s allow admissions officers on campuses to manage the dilemmas and make the big decisions, not federal judges.

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