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Affirmative action ruling draws praise from Duke

University officials came out in favor of the U.S. Supreme Court's endorsement of race as a factor in college admissions, breathing a sigh of relief that both the School of Law and undergraduate admissions policies passed the bar smoothly.

"Although we still need to review [Monday's] decisions in depth, I am confident that the admission policies approved by Duke's Board of Trustees, which have enabled the University to attract a diverse student body of the highest quality, are consistent with the court's rulings," President Nan Keohane said in a statement. "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."

Monday's rulings, on two University of Michigan cases, upheld the use of affirmative action in college admissions but invalidated the practice of a points-based system, in which race can provide applicants with a quantitative edge. None of Duke's schools use a points-based system, although all consider race to some degree.

The court's decision prompted delight and relief in many quarters.

"I'm pleased that the court has allowed us to retain the flexibility we already have to craft our class," Director of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag said. "I'm pleased they are allowing race to be one of the factors, among many. I'm pleased they recognize that having a diverse student body is a legitimate interest of universities."

Despite media reports that the court delivered a "split ruling," affirmative action actually gained significant legal vindication, said James Coleman, senior associate dean for academics at the law school.

"I don't think there is any question that this is a good day for people who support affirmative action," Coleman said. "The key question before the Supreme Court was, 'Can you consider race?' and the court held that you can."

The discrediting of quantitative affirmative action systems will primarily affect admissions procedures at large public universities, Guttentag said. Such universities will be forced to eschew the time-saving process of assigning points based on racial identity in favor of a more individualized approach similar to Duke's.

"How colleges that are in Michigan's shoes get to what's allowable will, I expect, take an infusion of resources," Guttentag said. "Colleges like the University of Michigan have an incredibly large number of [admissions] decisions to make in an incredibly short period of time. My guess is they used the point system to help manage the large applicant pool, and they will have to think of other ways to do that."

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will not be affected by the ruling. Unlike many public universities, it does not use a points-based system in its admissions decisions.

Jay Shively, acting assistant dean of admissions for Carolina Law, said he was pleased with the ruling. "We're just satisfied that we are operating under legal systems and are not doing anything questionable," he said.

Although Duke appears to be in the clear, Guttentag would not rule out the possibility of having to tweak admissions policies as a result of the ruling.

"It's possible that once the decision is studied in detail, some further nuances may appear," Guttentag said. He will be briefed by University Counsel David Adcock soon on the specifics of the court's ruling.

The majority opinion on the Michigan law school case, upholding the use of race in admissions, was written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and passed five to four. The other ruling, against the points-based system used in Michigan's undergraduate college, was written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and passed six to three.

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