KC Johnson

April 18: Campus Diversity in the 1990s and Bush Years

BARBARA GRUTTER, PETITIONER v. LEE BOLLINGER et al.

[June 23, 2003]

Justice O’Connor delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case requires us to decide whether the use of race as a factor in student admissions by the University of Michigan Law School (Law School) is unlawful…

The [law school’s] policy makes clear, however, that even the highest possible score does not guarantee admission to the Law School. Id., at 113. Nor does a low score automatically disqualify an applicant. Ibid. Rather, the policy requires admissions officials to look beyond grades and test scores to other criteria that are important to the Law School’s educational objectives. Id., at 114. So-called “ ‘soft’ variables” such as “the enthusiasm of recommenders, the quality of the undergraduate institution, the quality of the applicant’s essay, and the areas and difficulty of undergraduate course selection” are all brought to bear in assessing an “applicant’s likely contributions to the intellectual and social life of the institution.” Ibid.

The policy aspires to “achieve that diversity which has the potential to enrich everyone’s education and thus make a law school class stronger than the sum of its parts.” Id., at 118. The policy does not restrict the types of diversity contributions eligible for “substantial weight” in the admissions process, but instead recognizes “many possible bases for diversity admissions.” Id., at 118, 120. The policy does, however, reaffirm the Law School’s longstanding commitment to “one particular type of diversity,” that is, “racial and ethnic diversity with special reference to the inclusion of students from groups which have been historically discriminated against, like African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, who without this commitment might not be represented in our student body in meaningful numbers.” Id., at 120. By enrolling a “ ‘critical mass’ of [underrepresented] minority students,” the Law School seeks to “ensur[e] their ability to make unique contributions to the character of the Law School.”…

Since this Court’s splintered decision in Bakke, Justice Powell’s opinion announcing the judgment of the Court has served as the touchstone for constitutional analysis of race-conscious admissions policies. Public and private universities across the Nation have modeled their own admissions programs on Justice Powell’s views on permissible race-conscious policies…

Before this Court, as they have throughout this litigation, respondents assert only one justification for their use of race in the admissions process: obtaining “the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.” Brief for Respondents Bollinger et al. i. In other words, the Law School asks us to recognize, in the context of higher education, a compelling state interest in student body diversity…

We have long recognized that, given the important purpose of public education and the expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition….

As the District Court emphasized, the Law School’s admissions policy promotes “cross-racial understanding,” helps to break down racial stereotypes, and “enables [students] to better understand persons of different races.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 246a. These benefits are “important and laudable,” because “classroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting” when the students have “the greatest possible variety of backgrounds.” Id.,at 246a, 244a.

The Law School’s claim of a compelling interest is further bolstered by its amici, who point to the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity. In addition to the expert studies and reports entered into evidence at trial, numerous studies show that student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, and “better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals.”…

In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. All members of our heterogeneous society must have confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions that provide this training. As we have recognized, law schools “cannot be effective in isolation from the individuals and institutions with which the law interacts.” See Sweatt v. Painter,supra, at 634. Access to legal education (and thus the legal profession) must be inclusive of talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity, so that all members of our heterogeneous society may participate in the educational institutions that provide the training and education necessary to succeed in America….

We are mindful, however, that “[a] core purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to do away with all governmentally imposed discrimination based on race.” Accordingly, race-conscious admissions policies must be limited in time. This requirement reflects that racial classifications, however compelling their goals, are potentially so dangerous that they may be employed no more broadly than the interest demands. Enshrining a permanent justification for racial preferences would offend this fundamental equal protection principle. We see no reason to exempt race-conscious admissions programs from the requirement that all governmental use of race must have a logical end point….We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.

Chief Justice Rehnquist, with whom Justice Scalia, Justice Kennedy, and Justice Thomas join, dissenting.

The Law School claims it must take the steps it does to achieve a “ ‘critical mass’ ” of underrepresented minority students. But its actual program bears no relation to this asserted goal. Stripped of its “critical mass” veil, the Law School’s program is revealed as a naked effort to achieve racial balancing…  From 1995 through 2000, the Law School admitted between 1,130 and 1,310 students. Of those, between 13 and 19 were Native American, between 91 and 108 were African-Americans, and between 47 and 56 were Hispanic. If the Law School is admitting between 91 and 108

African-Americans in order to achieve “critical mass,” thereby preventing African-American students from feeling “isolated or like spokespersons for their race,” one would think that a number of the same order of magnitude would be necessary to accomplish the same purpose for Hispanics and Native Americans. Similarly, even if all of the Native American applicants admitted in a given year matriculate, which the record demonstrates is not at all the case, how can this possibly constitute a “critical mass” of Native Americans in a class of over 350 students? In order for this pattern of admission to be consistent with the Law School’s explanation of “critical mass,” one would have to believe that the objectives of “critical mass” offered by respondents are achieved with only half the number of Hispanics and one-sixth the number of Native Americans as compared to African-Americans. But respondents offer no race-specific reasons for such disparities. Instead, they simply emphasize the importance of achieving “critical mass,” without any explanation of why that concept is applied differently among the three underrepresented minority groups….

Respondents have never offered any race-specific arguments explaining why significantly more individuals from one underrepresented minority group are needed in order to achieve “critical mass” or further student body diversity. They certainly have not explained why Hispanics, who they have said are among “the groups most isolated by racial barriers in our country,” should have their admission capped out in this manner. True, petitioner is neither Hispanic nor Native American. But the Law School’s disparate admissions practices with respect to these minority groups demonstrate that its alleged goal of “critical mass” is simply a sham. Petitioner may use these statistics to expose this sham, which is the basis for the Law School’s admission of less qualified underrepresented minorities in preference to her. Surely strict scrutiny cannot permit these sort of disparities without at least some explanation….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: