After court rulings, U to reflect on admissions policies

Nathan Hall

University officials will spend the next academic year reviewing affirmative action policies to ensure they comply with two rulings issued last week by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said the University’s admissions policies already appear to fall within the guidelines set by the court.

“If we’ve been aiming at a target without knowing exactly what the target looked like, we actually came pretty close,” Rotenberg said. “I think we’re going to be refining our programs and looking at them carefully and making sure that all the programs here conform to the law.”

On June 23, the court reaffirmed in a 5-4 ruling the constitutionality of affirmative action by upholding the University of Michigan Law School’s right to use race as a factor in their admissions process. The court found that there was valid state interest in encouraging diversity in the nation’s higher education instutituions.

But in a 6-3 ruling, the court struck down Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy that arbitrarily assigned 20 additional points to minority applications. Applicants were automatically admitted if they accumulated 100 or more points of the 150 possible. The court ruled this process was not narrowly tailored, which was a crucial element to its legality.

Writing the opinion of the court in the undergraduate case, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said “because the University’s use of race in its current freshman admissions policy is not narrowly tailored to achieve (Michigan’s) asserted interest in diversity, the policy violates the Equal Protection Clause.”

In a press conference last week, University President Bob Bruininks said he was pleased with the ruling and that it appeared the University’s admissions policy is consistent with the court’s decision.

Two years ago, the University began revamping its admissions policies, dropping a policy that guaranteed admission to applicants with certain minimum test scores and high school grade point average. It was replaced with a “holistic” approach that looks at applicants individually, University admissions director Wayne Sigler said. The change was made so the University could better meet its total enrollment targets, he said.

The holistic approach, which the University adopted this year, focuses first on factors such as high school rank, ACT scores and GPA. The process also considers secondary review factors, which include race, academic trends and work experience.

“We define diversity very broadly,” Sigler said. Diversity includes geographical, experiential and racial differences, among others, he said.

Since implementation began two years ago, there has been no apparent impact on the percentage of minority students at the University. In 2002, 18.5 percent of the 5,188 incoming students were minorities compared with 16.2 percent in 1999, according to the University’s Office of Admissions. The highest percentage in the last 12 years was in 1993, when 18.6 percent of students were minorities. The figures include students who identify themselves to the University as African-American, Chicano-Latino, American Indian or Asian/Pacific, and does not include international students.

Although the court only opined on admissions policies, the ruling might raise issues for scholarships that exclude members of certain races.

Although the Twin Cities campus reworded eligibility standards for its minority scholarships a few years ago to say it “encouraged” minorities to apply, other campuses such as Morris and Duluth offer scholarships only made available to underrepresented minorities. For instance, the President’s Outstanding Minority Scholarship is awarded to a minority student demonstrating high academic potential and is not available to white students.

“Scholarships are a little bit different than admissions,” Rotenberg said. “But scholarships should not be awarded simply on the basis of skin color.”

Rotenberg said those policies would be reviewed.

They will also examine the regents’ policy on affirmative action. Rotenberg said one plausible change would be adding a sunset provision to the policy, which it appears the U.S. Supreme Court has made a condition to affirmative action. In her opinion, upholding affirmative action in the law school case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said she felt affirmative action would not be necessary in 25 years.

The University will also look at admissions procedures used by its most selective college programs to identify if any changes need to be made.

“The more selective the program, the more likely it will be that they need to be careful in their selection processes and their criteria,” Rotenberg said. The Carlson School of Management’s master of business administration and the University’s law school are examples of the more selective programs. The University does not have one central admissions office for the whole campus, so many programs will have to be reviewed.

American Indians will not be affected by the ruling because of a history of mistreatment in the state, Rotenberg said. The court considers past discrimination a valid reason to provide preferential treatment, according to the Supreme Court’s 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke ruling that abolished quotas.

Nathan Halverson covers police and legal affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected]