Supporters of affirmative action programs aimed at fostering racial diversity at American colleges and universities won a major victory this week at the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled that race may be considered as one of many factors in deciding whether to admit students. But in a second ruling, the court also said there are limits to how much of a factor race should be in the admissions process. National Correspondent Jim Malone has more on the most significant Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action in the past 25 years.
Affirmative action supporters at the University of Michigan were delighted by Monday's Supreme Court ruling that colleges and universities may continue to use race as a factor when considering college applicants.
By a narrow five to four majority, the court upheld the approach used by the University of Michigan Law School that considers race as one of many factors in the admissions process.
Civil Rights groups see the Supreme Court decision as an endorsement of affirmative action programs nationwide.
"Make no mistake about it, the court has reaffirmed, in no uncertain terms, the right of institutions to take race into account in admissions. This is one of those days that reaffirms our faith in our system of laws," said Theodore Shaw who is with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Legal Defense Fund.
But in a second ruling, the Supreme Court issued a warning of sorts to colleges and universities not to place too much emphasis on race in the admissions process.
By a vote of six to three, the high court ruled that the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions process was flawed because it provided minority students with too much of an advantage over white applicants. The university rates applicants on a points system and routinely awards 20 points, or one-fifth of the points needed to guarantee admission, to minority students simply on the basis of race.
This second decision pleased Jennifer Gratz. She sued the University of Michigan claiming illegal discrimination after she was denied admission in 1995.
"The court today said that their [University of Michigan's] undergraduate policy is wrong and students deserve to be treated fairly. To me, that is a victory," she said.
The legal and practical impacts of the affirmative action rulings are potentially far-reaching.
Colleges and universities are now free to continue to use race as a factor in admissions, but they must not formalize the process to the point where there is the appearance of reverse discrimination.
Lee Bollinger, who was president of the University of Michigan when the two lawsuits first started making their way through the court system, told CBS television that the ruling upholding affirmative action is a victory in the struggle to achieve racial diversity in U.S. higher education.
"What yesterday's decision did was to give a clear majority of the court that held, for very solid and eloquently stated reasons, that race can be considered to get an integrated student body in order to better educate all students for the modern world," said Mr. Bollinger, who is now president of Columbia University. "So, in that sense it is really profoundly important and now gives a clear Supreme Court precedent on this major issue."
Georgetown University law professor Susan Low Bloch says the Supreme Court's reaffirmation of affirmative action programs to foster racial diversity will have an impact not only on colleges and universities, but on the private sector as well.
"What the court has decided is that a university can consider race in trying to get a diverse class and that will be influential for both public universities, private schools that take federal aid, and private businesses that have contracts with the government," she said.
The five-to-four majority opinion on the court in support of affirmative action was written by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has emerged over the years as one of the court's leading centrist voices. But in her opinion, Justice O'Connor also expressed the hope that within 25 years, racial preferences to encourage diversity in American higher education will no longer be necessary.