By Steve Giegerich
The Associated Press
It will be business as usual, almost. The nation's college administrators called Monday's split Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action a victory that will allow them to keep admissions policies largely intact.
"The decisions uphold the principle that colleges have the right to not only use their own discretion, but that there is a compelling interest to making sure diversity is there," said Cheryl Fields, a spokeswoman for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, which represents 211 schools.
"Based on that, I think most universities will not have to make sweeping changes in what they're doing," she said.
Along with other higher education experts, Fields embraced the court's 5-4 decision to uphold the University of Michigan's law school admission policy that sought a "critical mass" of minorities.
The experts discounted the court's companion ruling which, by a 6-3 vote, struck down Michigan's undergraduate admissions formula of awarding points to minorities based on race.
"The Michigan undergraduate program is relatively unique and is not replicated by a significant number of schools," said Sheldon Steinbach, the general counsel for the American Council on Education, an umbrella group representing many U.S. universities.
A leading opponent of affirmative action policies warned that the court's "great disservice" in the Michigan rulings extends the debate over racial balancing that began 25 years ago, when the court said race was one of several factors that can be considered in determining college admissions.
Ward Connerly, who helped win voter approval of an anti-affirmative initiative affecting California schools, vowed to present his case to voters across the nation.
"We have to seriously contest all this at the ballot box as we did in California," Connerly said. "It may be time for us to pay a visit to the state of Michigan and let the voters decide if they want to use race as a factor in admissions. The court said they may use race. They didn't say they have to use race."
But the mood among officials at Michigan was upbeat.
"This is a resounding affirmation that will be heard across the land, from our college classrooms to our corporate boardrooms," Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman said in a statement.
Rebecca Chopp, the president of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., said the law school ruling leaves the status quo in place at her school and most other small, liberal arts colleges.
"We look at each student very uniquely and evaluate them qualitatively. So, certainly, race is important," Chopp said. "But what part of the country that they come from and whether they're a cello player or a lacrosse player is important, too."
In Florida, the state has dropped affirmative action programs in favor of so-called percentage plans, which guarantee that top-tier students from each high school will be admitted to public universities, regardless of race.
Democratic state lawmakers said in the aftermath of Monday's ruling that programs which include race should be revived, but GOP Gov. Jeb Bush said the policy wouldn't change.
Texas also uses a percentage plan. That program will stay in place, but University of Texas President Larry Faulkner said the school also would start work on a new admissions policy that takes race into account.
Like Connerly, few in higher education believe the court's ruling will be the last word on affirmative action.
"In a country that graduates 44,000 lawyers per year and is a litigious society, everything is subject to challenge," Steinbach said.
The senior faculty adviser for the National Black Student Union praised the court, however, for providing a "firm foundation" for future challenges to affirmative action.
Said Roger Pulliam, assistant vice chancellor for academic support services at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater: "Given the political climate, we could have lost everything."
On the Net
American Council On Education: http://www.acenet.edu
National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges: http://www.nasulgc.org
A timeline of court decisions and administration actions on affirmative action
1978 - The Supreme Court, in Bakke v. Regents of the University of California, ruled that racial quotas are illegal but colleges could consider race as one factor in admitting students.
1980- In Fullilove v. Klutznick, the court ruled a federal public works program that set aside 10 percent of its spending for minority contractors was constitutional.
1987- The court for the first time upheld an affirmative action plan for women, ruling that companies can give special preferences to hire and promote females to create a more balanced work force. The ruling in Johnson v. Transportation Agency was sharply criticized by President Reagan.
The court also ruled in U.S. v. Paradise that it was constitutional to require equal numbers of black and white Alabama state police troopers to be promoted.
1990 - The court upheld federal policies favoring women and minorities in granting broadcast licenses in Metro Broadcasting vs. FCC and Astroline Communications v. Shurberg Broadcasting.
1991 - President Bush's Justice Department sues the Piscataway, N.J., board of education, which fired a white teacher rather than a black teacher with the same seniority. The Bush administration claimed the layoff was based on illegal racial discrimination. The Clinton administration in 1994 switched sides and argued that workplace diversity could be taken into account. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case over Clinton administration objections, but the case eventually was settled in 1997 with the fired white teacher being paid $433,500.
1995 - In Adarand Construction v. Pena, the court ruled that it would evaluate the constitutionality of federal affirmative action programs by the stricter standard applied to state programs designed to help minorities. That standard allowed race-based preferences only if narrowly tailored to address identifiable past discrimination.
After a review of government affirmative action programs, President Clinton declared: "Affirmative action has been good for America. We should have a simple slogan: Mend it, but don't end it."
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