In two key affirmative action rulings Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court said that achieving racial diversity on college campuses is in society's best interest. This is good news. Broadening access to secondary education for all, and especially historically underrepresented minority students, is one of the best ways to strengthen society, both socially and economically.
However, we had hoped the court would do more to clarify the best way to achieve this goal. Affirmative action has become a polarizing flashpoint for much of America, in academic and business settings. Monday's rulings still leave open the liklihood of further costly litigation as schools seek ways to perfect their admissions standards. The court's rulings said race may be considered, but only up to a point.
The way to achieve that diversity is not through racial quotas, which is what the court said the University of Michigan has been doing with its undergraduate admissions policy. The university uses a point system applied to the applications of minorities and other underrepresented groups that gives them an unfair edge over non-minority candidates. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled the policy violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause.
But in a 5-4 decision, the court affirmed the University of Michigan's law school admissions policy, which does not use a point system, but does consider race and other factors to ensure diversity. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, said "Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized." She's right.
For years, businesses have who want to compete in a global economy have known they must market themselves to a diverse audience. That means getting a diverse work force as part of their team. On a basic level, public institutions of higher learning may now employ a similar strategy, not through quotas, but through other ways. They may take race into account, but they are likely to also consider such factors as where applicants come from, whether they are first-generation college aspirants, what extra-curricular activities they engage in and a host of other "diverse" factors.
This ruling had been among the most anticipated of the current session. The court had not addressed the issue of affirmative action in 25 years, when it narrowly upheld affirmative action in the 1978 Bakke decision. That case supported affirmative action, but not quotas.
Monday's rulings essentially upheld Bakke, but will allow public universities to develop other strategies to take race into account in their admissions policies. Private schools and other entities will look to the rulings for guidance.
They should not get caught up in divisive "quotas" and "preferences" rhetoric, but consider the issue of fairness as well.
Since Bakke, America has become more multicultural and upwardly mobile. Determining whom to help based exclusively on race is no longer a valid measurement. The Supreme Court has left open the door for universities develop their own strategies to achieve diversity, and that might be a blessing.
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