Is judge right on U-M admissions policy?

No: Don’t let university illegally engineer racial mix

By Terence Pell

Detroit News, December 17, 2000

Federal Judge Patrick Duggan’s ruling earlier last week that the University of Michigan ran an unconstitutional admissions system during the mid-1990s is an important step forward in ending race preferences at Michigan and elsewhere.

Judge Duggan found that U-M illegally insulated minority applicants from direct comparison with other applicants. He struck down numerous aspects of the system then in place, including the use of protected seats for minority applicants, the automatic rejection of certain categories of nonminority applicants and the use of “grids” that treat minority and nonminority applicants with the same grades and test scores differently.

But Judge Duggan left in place an admissions system that, to this day, grants substantial racial preferences according to a “point” system that awards 20 points to every minority applicant, the equivalent of a full high school grade point. (By comparison, an outstanding essay only earns three points.)

So the next step must await another day: the elimination of any race preference designed merely to produce a certain racial mix of students. For the question in this case is not the procedures that are used to engineer a racial mix, but the preliminary and more important question of whether mere racial diversity ever is important enough to justify the use of race preferences.

Much of U-M’s case for why state-manufactured racial diversity is educationally important rests on its assessment of race relations in America today. At a hearing last month, respected lead attorney John Payton told the court that we “remain a divided country,” where residential “segregation” is the norm. Payton explained that this poses an “enormous” educational challenge by the time students reach college.

Though few would agree that American society is segregated, many also understand that it is a good thing for Michigan and other colleges to help students cross the racial divides that sometimes characterize everyday life. Still, one can question whether giving 20 extra points to every minority applicant is a constructive means to that worthy end.

To begin with, the Constitution sensibly does not permit the government to remedy the effects of general, societal discrimination by dispensing benefits — whether points toward college admission or admission itself — according to race. The U.S. Supreme Court has said such a racial spoils system is inconsistent with the Constitution’s command that the state judge individuals on their merits, not their skin color.

In its defense, the university relies on an exception to this general rule, one described by a lone justice in a 1978 case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In a part of his opinion not joined by any other justice, Lewis Powell wrote that colleges and universities can sometimes look at the race of an individual applicant to gauge the contribution that he or she would make to the intellectual diversity of the class.

Powell was emphatic, however, that genuine diversity means much more than simple, ethnic diversity. Powell correctly discerned that this type of diversity inevitably insulates minority candidates from direct competition with others. Instead of being judged as an individual, applicants are judged as members of a particular ethnic group.

U-M takes issue with Powell’s view by arguing that simple ethnic diversity in and of itself possesses great educational value. But the idea that mere ethnic diversity has importance is dubious. On this view, the color of a person’s skin counts for as much, and many times more than, other measures of individual promise, such as academic achievement, an outstanding essay, or unusual talents or life experiences.

The university’s expert studies confirm that the value of ethnic diversity is slight. And U-M admits that much of the teaching value of simple ethnic diversity consists in showing students that skin color doesn’t matter very much in comparison with other, more important characteristics.

But if the educational benefits are slight, it starts to look like Michigan is just trying to get a racial mix for its own sake. This is clearly illegal. Why should an individual be required to give up a chance to attend a state-run school solely because his or her skin color doesn’t lend itself to the right racial mix?

Underpinning U-M’s practices — and those at a number of other schools — is racial mixing largely, if not exclusively, for its own sake combined with a quiet contempt for the abilities of minority students. Michigan’s students — and all of America’s — deserve better.