Affirmative Action Issue in College Admissions
Grows Murkier Michigan supporters plan national march, rally to increase visibility
The issue of affirmative action in college admissions continues to make headlines as a recent ruling adds to the growing set of conflicting court decisions, and affirmative action supporters plan a national march.
In a unanimous ruling, a Georgia federal appeals court panel determined last month that the admissions policy of the University of Georgia is unconstitutional because it gives a slight preference in bonus points to non-White applicants. The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the decision of a lower court ruling that favored three White women who were denied admission in 1999.
In addition to condemning Georgia’s admissions policy, the court also questioned whether the Supreme Court’s 1978 landmark ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, provides adequate justification for using race in admissions decisions. For more than two decades, the Bakke case has guided most colleges’ affirmative action policies.
The conflicting decisions have caused some institutions to re-evaluate their race-related policies and programs. The University of Florida, for instance, announced last month that it will no longer award scholarships based on race. According to a university official, the school will immediately begin revising more than 50 minority scholarship programs to make them race neutral.
In the next few months, however, attention will turn again to the University of Michigan where two of the nation’s most closely watched affirmative action lawsuits faded out of the public spotlight this summer as lawyers quietly worked on appeals. But on Oct. 23, the two cases will shift back to center stage when the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati begins hearing oral arguments. The next stop for one or both of the cases could be the U.S. Supreme Court.
The appeals court in Cincinnati is expected to deal with conflicting rulings by two U.S. district judges. In December 2000, Judge Patrick Duggan ruled without a trial and granted summary judgment in the university’s favor in a case involving the school’s undergraduate admissions policies. He found that the pursuit of the educational benefits of diversity is a compelling governmental interest, and that U-M’s current admissions policy is fully constitutional.
Three months later in the same courthouse, Judge Bernard Friedman issued a decision finding that the educational benefits of diversity were not a compelling interest and that the specifics of the law school’s policy were not “narrowly tailored” to that interest. He also found that the intervenors’ defense was based on remedying societal discrimination, which is impermissible (see Black Issues, April 26).
Friedman issued an order that the law school cease considering race in its admissions process. On April 5, the appeals court issued a stay of the District Court order while the appeal proceeds.
Seeking Greater Visibility
In Michigan, supporters of affirmative action are planning to bring greater visibility to the issue by staging a national march and rally in Cincinnati on the day oral arguments begin. According to Miranda Massie, a Detroit-based attorney who represented a group of U-M students who intervened in the law school case, protesters will likely be joined in Cincinnati by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and various national civil rights groups.
The Georgia decision “shows why this mobilization is so important,” Massie says. “If we don’t continue to build national support for affirmative action, higher education will be re-segregated.”
Shanta Driver, an adviser to the Michigan intervenors, said student groups from around the nation — including Penn State University, Harvard University and Brown University — will join U-M students in Cincinnati. Several smaller events will lead up to the national march, Driver says. In Cincinnati, students and civic leaders are planning a town hall meeting for Oct. 9 to rally support.
Also, several nationally known scholars who support affirmative action policies are to visit U-M for panel discussions between Sept. 30 and Oct. 4. Massie says they will invite several of the scholars who testified in the trial on behalf of Michigan including Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University and Walter Allen, professor of sociology at UCLA.
“I think we can get tens of thousands of people to Cincinnati,” Driver says. “There’s no audience that we’ve addressed this summer that we haven’t had overwhelming support from. With this rally, we can put the nation on notice that the new civil rights movement is alive and well.”
Terrence Pell, a lawyer for the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), which has crusaded against affirmative action nationwide and represents the plaintiffs in both cases, said he was unaware of plans for a march. He said the center based in Washington, D.C., has no plans to hold similar events leading up to Oct. 23.
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