The University of North Carolina announced its involvement in the "monumental" U.S. Supreme Court affirmative action case Grutter v. Bollinger last week, supporting a policy President George W. Bush has called discriminatory and unconstitutional.
University of North Carolina System President Molly Broad announced last week that the UNC system will stand behind an amicus brief - an opinion filed with the Supreme Court by an outside party - issued by the American Council on Education, supporting the use of race in the college admissions process. In addition, Gene Nichol, dean of the law school at UNC-Chapel Hill, said his school will submit its own amicus brief offering similar support of affirmative action policies.
In Grutter v. Bollinger, plaintiff Barbara Grutter, a white applicant, claims she was denied acceptance to the University of Michigan's law school in 1997 due to the school's use of race in the admissions process. Last December, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, which marks its first affirmative action case since Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978.
"The court said [in 1978] it was acceptable to use race as a factor in achieving a diverse student body," Nichol said. "Law schools for well over 20 years have been working hard to follow that admissions process. There are some who want to radically change that at this point, and that is what is at stake in this case."
Michigan uses a concrete system in pursuing diversity by giving 20 points in a 150-point scale to minority applicants. The admissions process at UNC's law school is not as objective, said Jay Shively, acting assistant dean of admissions. "Race is a subjective factor that we consider along with the totality of the application," Shively said. "It is not quantified at all. Race or socioeconomic status is not going to make the final decision for anybody."
Nichol said although the admissions procedures at UNC and Michigan are not identical, a court ruling against Michigan would hurt UNC's law school, whose student body is 21 percent minority students. "[A ruling against Michigan] would dramatically impact the way we admit students, hamper our way to have as strong an institution as we have now and hamper our role of training leaders for the broader community," Nichol said.
Education officials are also concerned about possible implications for scholarship distribution that could result from the court's ruling. The North Carolina Education Assistance Authority, for example, usually spends $1.65 million per year in minority scholarships, funded by the Minority Presence Grant, to promote diversity on UNC campuses. Elizabeth McDuffie, NCEAA's director for education training and outreach, said that as of July 1, this grant will be renamed the UNC Campus Scholarship to reflect a changing definition of diversity.
"Each campus is in the process of determining if they have enough diversity," McDuffie said. "It is highly likely that many will not define diversity in terms of race."
McDuffie explained that if the court rules against the use of race as a deciding factor, campuses will use NCEAA funds to increase diversity based on new terms involving geographic or socioeconomic factors. As a result, the number of scholarships offered to minority students may decrease.
Although many university officials initially saw implications of the court's ruling only reaching the realm of public institutions, leaders of private universities are now showing concern as well. Yale announced its decision to file an amicus brief in support of affirmative action, and other Ivy League schools like Princeton and Harvard are contemplating the same action.
Nationwide, 37 public and private colleges and universities have signed a letter in support of Michigan's admissions process.
Dennis Shields, associate dean of admissions and financial aid at the Duke University School of Law, said President Nan Keohane has received requests to submit an opinion to the court, though no decision has been made. "I think private schools have every right to be concerned because private schools in most cases receive federal funding in some sort," said Shields, who was assistant dean of admissions at Michigan's law school when Grutter was denied admission, and is subsequently a defendant in the case.
"The entities that are the prime movers behind this [case] are not showing any inclination to go after private schools, but who's to say they won't?" Shields said.