July 7, 2003

Court decision good for Emory

By Michael Terrazas

Emory administrators hailed the June 23 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions at the University of Michigan.

In two separate cases that were heard jointly, the court voted 5-4 to support Michigan’s use of race as one of many factors in its law school admissions procedures, but the court struck down by a 6-3 vote the university’s use of a point system that factors race in undergraduate admissions. Still, despite the seemingly split decision, affirmative action supporters are claiming victory in that the court, in the Michigan law school case, upheld the spirit of a 1978 decision that declared a “compelling interest” in diversity on college campuses.

“On behalf of the faculty, students and staff of Emory University, and in union with the great majority of the presidents of private universities, I welcome the decisions of the Supreme Court,” President Bill Chace said. “The court found a compelling interest in ‘obtaining educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body.’ It thus reaffirmed the principles articulated in the 1978 Bakke decision that found a compelling state interest in racial and ethnic diversity in higher education.”

Because Michigan is a public school, the decisions do not directly affect private institutions like Emory, but had the court ruled that race could not be used as a factor in admissions, the stage would have been set for a challenge to admissions policies at private schools.

However the court’s vote in the Michigan law school case, coupled with the fact that Emory does not use a quantitative method like Michigan’s point system for undergraduates, means the decisions were good news all around.

“From my reading [of the decision], the Emory admissions policies are in good shape,” said General Counsel Kent Alexander. “As a selective private university, we have the luxury of evaluating each application separately and making decisions using a host of factors. Our system is flexible and non-mechanistic, which are two characteristics Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor found compelling.”

“The court’s support of affirmative action is in harmony with Emory’s desire to attract a diverse student body of the highest quality,” Chace said. “Our admissions policies and practices, at both the undergraduate and professional school levels, reflect our conviction that true education must embrace genuine student diversity. We plan no changes whatsoever in those policies and practices, believing them to be fully consonant with the rulings of the court.”

In February Emory joined with 37 other private universities an amici “friend of the court” brief, originally filed by Carnegie Mellon University, that expressed support for Michigan’s admissions policies. The brief affirmed the principles of the Bakke decision and stated that “some consideration of race in evaluating individual candidates” is the best way to ensure a diverse student body.

On June 23, the Supreme Court seemed to agree. However Alexander said that, in his dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia “gave a one-page roadmap” for anyone who wants to attack the decision. With rumors around Washington that a Supreme Court vacancy may soon open, and with a conservative president in George W. Bush set to make the appointment to fill that vacancy, there is a distinct possibility that future challengers to race-conscious admissions policies may find a friendlier audience in the nation’s highest court.

In light of the decision, Alexander said he and Senior Vice Provost Harriet King soon will meet with admissions officers from each of Emory’s schools to discuss the impacts for the University.

“Had the Michigan law decision gone the other way,” Alexander said, “we would have held that meeting the next day.”