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US Supreme Court Gives Qualified Nod to University Affirmative Action - 2003-06-23

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that minority students can be given a slight edge when gaining admission to American colleges and universities. But the high court also cautioned universities not to place too much emphasis on race as a factor in determining whether a student should be granted admission.

For supporters of affirmative action programs aimed at encouraging racial diversity on college campuses, it was a split decision.

By a vote of five to four, the Supreme Court upheld the affirmative action policy of the University of Michigan Law School. The narrow majority said government does have a compelling interest in encouraging diversity on campus and that the law school approach was sufficiently narrow in scope as to be constitutional.

But in a second ruling, a six to three majority on the high court sided with critics of racial preferences. The court struck down the University of Michigan's undergraduate affirmative action plan that gives minority students a significant advantage in a points-based evaluation system. The court majority said that approach is too much like a racial quota, and places too much emphasis on the race of the college applicant.

At issue in both cases was whether affirmative action programs aimed at creating a diverse university student body amount to reverse discrimination against white applicants. Affirmative action supporters took heart in the partial victory. Attorney Miranda Massey argued before the high court on behalf of the University of Michigan Law School.

"The fact that we were able to win a victory in the law school case means that affirmative action programs will be upheld around the country, and we can continue the incomplete progress toward integrating higher education," Ms. Massey said.

Affirmative action critics were more disappointed that the high court did not go further in restricting racial preferences. "I think the Supreme Court today unfortunately rejected Martin Luther King's dream of a color-blind society, and refused to abide by the Constitution's guarantee of equal treatment of all citizens, regardless of race," said Gerald Walpin, of the Center for Individual Rights in New York.

Monday's Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action are the most significant decisions since 1978. At that time, a sharply divided court said that colleges could take race into account as a factor in deciding, which students to admit, provided those programs were "narrowly tailored."

The affirmative action decisions could have a significant impact, not only on university admissions polices, but on business hiring practices as well.