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Colleges Applaud Affirmative Action Ruling

June 24, 2003
Posted at: 9:26 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON -- Although the Supreme Court split on affirmative action, college administrators say the court's decisions will allow them to keep admissions policies that use race largely intact.

"We are pleased the court has affirmed policies like ours that promote compelling educational interests in inclusiveness," Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers said. "We will continue to pursue those interests with energy and care."

Higher education experts praised the court's 5-4 decision Monday to uphold the University of Michigan's law school admission policy that sought a "critical mass" of minorities.

Saying it was not like a typical college's admissions strategy, the experts discounted the court's companion ruling which, by a 6-3 vote, struck down Michigan's undergraduate admissions formula that awarded 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, general counsel for the American Council on Education, an umbrella group representing many U.S. universities.

At Virginia Tech, which briefly dismantled its affirmative action policies in March, spokesman Larry Hincker said: "We are pleased we can use race as a factor in achieving diversity."

Duke President Nan Keohane said: "Our admissions policies reflect the principle that the Supreme Court has reaffirmed, namely that student diversity is an essential component of higher education's quality."

Word of the rulings awakened the tree-sheltered University of Michigan campus from its summer doldrums as about 100 students converged on the campus center, holding banners, waving signs and chanting slogans.

The chant "unity, diversity, a better university" echoed from the walls of the Graduate Library.

"This was a huge victory," said Monique Perry, 20, who is black and the vice president of the student government.

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.

Rebecca Chopp, 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 the ruling that programs that 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 policy that takes race into account.

Like Connerly, few in higher education believe the court's rulings 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."

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