Court hears arguments on Michigan admissions

Josh Linehan

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case involving admissions practices at the University of Michigan that could affect how all public universities consider race in student admissions.

The case, filed by three white students who were not admitted to Michigan’s undergraduate and law schools, alleges the college breaks the law by assigning students points on the basis of race.

The court allotted two hours to hear arguments Tuesday morning. University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg listened as justices questioned lawyers on both sides.

“This is probably the most important Supreme Court case of the year,” Rotenberg said.

Minneapolis attorney Kirk Kolbo argued on behalf of a rejected applicant, claiming Michigan’s undergraduate point system – which boosts a minority applicant’s score by 20 points on a 150-point scale – is unconstitutional.

Several University officials said they were monitoring the case closely but said any effect the court’s decision could have on the admissions process here would depend entirely on how the decision was worded.

A decision worded to declare any consideration of race in admissions unconstitutional would force most colleges and universities in the nation to revamp their admissions processes.

Wayne Sigler, who is in charge of undergraduate admissions at the University, said his office uses a tiered system which does take race into account but does not assign it a value.

The primary factors for University admission are high school academic rank, grade point average, ACT scores and classes taken, Sigler said.

Secondary factors include race, geographic differences and gender differences as part of an overall attempt to achieve diversity.

Sharon Reich Paulsen, the Law School’s associate dean for administration, said her office takes the holistic approach to admissions one step further by considering each file on its own merits without breaking out any specific parts.

The Michigan law school uses a formula that tries to achieve a 10 percent to 12 percent minority enrollment level for each incoming class.

Michigan’s point system was attacked by Solicitor General Theodore Olson, the court lawyer for the George W. Bush administration, who called the Michigan law school program a “thinly disguised quota.”

The Supreme Court struck down quota systems for university admissions in the University of California v. Bakke ruling in 1978.

Several justices pressed Olson on this point, Rotenberg said.

“A number of the justices focused on the military academies and their admission policies, where three out of four of those academies do use race,” he said. “They then asked the Bush administration’s lawyer if their position was that the military is wrong.”

The case drew considerable attention, Rotenberg said, with hundreds of pro-affirmative action protesters demonstrating outside the building.

A decision in the case is not expected until this summer.

In Paulsen’s opinion, the eventual decision is unlikely to be unanimous and should make an effort to follow the precedent from 25 years ago.

“At the end of the day, I think there will be some endorsement of the Bakke decision,” she said.