RALEIGH — The U.S. Supreme Court has issued its decision in a much-awaited case involving racial preferences at the University of Michigan, but a North Carolina-based higher education analyst is warning educators and policymakers not to read too much into the decision, which appears to preserve some kinds of affirmative action to promote diversity while striking down blatant discrimination.
On a 5-4 vote, the Court upheld an admissions policy at Michigan’s law school that sought a “critical mass” of minorities. But a larger majority, 6-3, struck down the university’s use of racial preferences at the undergraduate level, concluding that the policy of granting 20 extra points to minority applicants was tantamount to an unconstitutional quota system.
“A strong majority of the Court recognized that racial quotas, set-asides, point systems, and other blatant kinds of discrimination are unconstitutional — even if the intent is praiseworthy,” said George Leef, director of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy and a former legislative aide and college professor in Michigan. “But on the broader issue of defining what affirmation action is, and what kinds of affirmative action are legally permissible, the Court did not apparently provide clear guidance.”
Nor should the federal judiciary map out the best way to promote equal opportunity in higher education and other areas of society, Leef said.
“States and their elected representatives are and should be free to decide how they use inclusive policies, such as aggressive recruitment efforts, to pursue diversity,” he said. “And no one should doubt the value of real diversity in an educational setting — particularly a true diversity of ideas expressed on campus, which is currently lacking in North Carolina and elsewhere.”
Unlike previous federal court decisions striking down racial preferences elsewhere in the nation, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the University of Michigan case sets a binding precedent for public universities in North Carolina, where a variety of outreach and admissions programs are in place under the broad term of “affirmative action.”
“Preferences that serve to admit minorities or others with fewer academic credentials into the University of North Carolina system in order to meet some arbitrary target do a disservice not only to the institution and the taxpayers who fund it but also to students themselves,” Leef said. “What often results is a mismatch — students who might have performed well at another college but who are enticed to more rigorous campuses for which they are unprepared. Many drop out as a result.”
Leef urges caution as North Carolina policymakers react to the University of Michigan result, given the ambiguity surrounding its findings in the case involving the university’s law school. The clearest signal from today’s rulings, he concluded, was that formal racial-preference policies are likely to run afoul of federal law and the federal constitution.
The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a special project of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation, has published a number of reports over the years on affirmative action policy, including a recent paper examining the University of Michigan case and its implications for admissions policies nationwide. It and other relevant materials are posted on the Pope Center web site. For more information about affirmative action policy in higher education, contact Leef or the Pope Center’s Jon Sanders at 919-828-3876.