Racial preferences’ fate in North Carolina hinges on Michigan case

All eyes are on Michigan now, thanks to a case before the Supreme Court involving the University of Michigan Law Schools’ use of racial preferences in admissions decisions. It is a case being watched with extreme interest by N.C. higher-education officials , public and private.

The legal ramifications of the Supreme Court ruling are these. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees the equal protection of the laws to any citizen of the United States. Those laws include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which extends equal protection to U.S. citizens wishing to participate in or benefit from any program or activity receiving federal aid. Those include every program at every college (public or private) in which at least one program receives federal aid, as made clear by the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987. So the Supreme Court’s decision will be applicable to nearly every college or university in the land — it would affect Duke University as well as UNC.

At present, the governing decision is the 1978 Supreme Court decision Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, which is the only time the court ever ruled on racial preferences in admissions to institutes of higher education. Specifically, it is Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.’s opinion in favor of limited use of race-based admissions to ensure a racially diverse campus.

Powell’s opinion was more nuanced, however, than is popularly held — and certainly more nuanced than most academic justifications for racial preferences. Powell never opined in favor of ensuring “simple ethnic diversity.” Instead, he held that race or ethnicity was only one element of diversity. As he wrote, “The diversity that furthers a compelling state interest encompasses a far broader array of qualifications and characteristics of which racial or ethnic origin is but a single though important element.” Importantly, he noted that a “special admissions program, focused solely on ethnic diversity, would hinder rather than further attainment of genuine diversity.”

Based in no small part on the reasoning behind Powell’s opinion, “diversity” has become the watchword at public colleges in North Carolina and across the country. One can easily find institutional pronouncements on the educational importance of diversity throughout the materials and web sites of UNC schools. Whole divisions and committees are tasked with ensuring, monitoring, and assessing diversity on campus. Universities have made no secret of the fact also that the diversity they seek is something quantifiable on the surface; that is, it’s driven by skin color and gender. Consequently, ensuring diversity on campus is part of the admissions process and controlled by the admissions office.

In 1998 the Center for Equal Opportunity studied the effect of racial preferences in North Carolina. With their future here now uncertain, a key feature of interest in the CEO report is its examination of the effect of eliminating race based admission policies in the UNC system. If the median Verbal SAT scores, Math SAT scores, and GPAs of black admittees at a school surpassed the 25th percentile scores of white admittees at the same school, the report assumed that those students could gain admission to that school. The report found that “North Carolina schools would not become resegregated in the absence of preferences. There would be no universities without black admittees. Only Chapel Hill, Asheville, and N.C. State might lose a significant proportion of those who would currently be admitted. They would immediately be admitted to the other public universities in the state.”

Indeed, that is the pattern that has emerged in states (e.g., California, Texas, Florida) where racial preferences have come to an end. Only at the most rigorous universities does minority enrollment fall, and the other public institutions readily admit those minority students turned away, so that overall minority enrollment is not greatly affected. What appears to be happening is that when racial preferences end, students prepare themselves accordingly under the new admissions expectations. The universities and state governments then find ways to admit minorities under Powell’s reasoning in favor of diversity, but without the explicit racial component. For example, a state might guarantee that high-school students who graduated among a certain percentage of the top students in their class admission to any state school. Schools might also place more weight in application essays in which applicants are encouraged to discuss obstacles they consider to have faced on their road to higher education.

It is too early, however, to gauge the effectiveness of these new approaches (especially the latter) upon graduation rates. Those states leading the way (whether intentionally or not) are providing the nation with test grounds for how to approach the “diversity” problem in admissions without reducing it to its ugliest form, race. If their approaches yield improvements on the other end of the spectrum, graduation, then they certainly merit consideration in North Carolina — regardless of how the justices rule in the Michigan case.