Princeton To Follow Harvard In Supporting Michigan’s Policies

U-WIRE – PRINCETON, N.J. — Harvard University–and possibly Princeton University–will file a brief with the Supreme Court next month supporting the University of Michigan policy that considers race as a factor in admissions, officials said Thursday. Harvard is planning to file the brief by Feb. 18, said Beth Potier, a Harvard spokeswoman. President Tilghman said yesterday that she supported the University of Michigan’s side and that Princeton may join the Harvard petition if asked. The case centers on whether the affirmative action program denies white students who filed suit against the school equal protection guarantees of the Constitution. President Bush opposed the University of Michigan policy in a brief filed Thursday by the Justice Department. Harvard’s brief represents the first plans for formal action by a major university before the Supreme Court to oppose the Bush administration’s views on affirmative action. A White House spokesman declined to comment Thursday night. Harvard’s Civil Rights Project previously supported the University of Michigan when the cases were heard in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling in the Michigan cases will likely be the most significant decision on affirmative action since 1978 when the court ruled against racial quotas in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke but said that universities could use race as a factor in admissions. The Harvard petition advocates sustaining the high court’s current interpretation of affirmative action. Tilghman said, “I think most of the higher education world would want to sustain Justice Powell’s ruling [in Bakke],” she said. The American Council on Education, a consortium of organizations involved in higher education has also recently called on Bush to support the University of Michigan’s policies. The University of Michigan’s system came under legal action in 1997 in two cases alleging that the university uses racial quotas. At the undergraduate level, several white applicants argued that the university’s points-based admission system violated the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. The plaintiffs alleged that they were denied admission in favor of less qualified students. In the case against the law school, plaintiffs charged that there was a similar percentage target for minorities. Unlike Princeton and most other small, selective universities, Michigan uses a points-based admissions process. Under the current 150-point system, blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans receive 20 points automatically for being a member of an underrepresented minority. The administration brief did not come out against considerations of race in admissions. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the highest ranking black official in the Bush administration, spoke out against the president Thursday in support of the University of Michigan. Though the university’s admission process is significantly different from Princeton’s, a Supreme Court ruling against the University of Michigan would likely affect private universities like Princeton because they accept federal funds. The impact would hinge on the nature of the ruling. “What we are hoping is that the ruling is about process but does not rule [Bakke] unconstitutional,” Tilghman said. “If the court decides to completely overturn Bakke and essentially reverse Justice Powell’s very carefully worded opinion that race is one of many considerations, then it will have a direct relevance to us.” Princeton has been in contact with several peer institutions, and Tilghman has “personally” promoted this position to people in Washington, such as Sen. Bill Frist ’74, R-Tenn, the new Senate majority leader. “I think the administration brief is much more positive on our side than I think we had anticipated,” Tilghman said. “I think the signs are more positive than negative.” Princeton has practiced a policy of affirmative action in admissions since 1963, when then-President Robert Goheen ’40 announced that the University would actively seek to attract and enroll excellent students from underrepresented racial backgrounds. University Dean of Admission Fred Hargadon declined to comment on how a ruling against Michigan might affect Princeton. However, “The Shape of the River,” an extensive study conducted by former President William Bowen GS ’58 and former Harvard President Derek Bok, suggests that the consequences for campus diversity might be devastating. According to Bowen and Bok’s analysis of admissions at a range of top universities including Princeton, race-neutral admissions policies would reduce the overall chance of admission for a black applicant from 42 percent to 13 percent. Similarly, they estimate that the percentage of black matriculants in the schools studied would drop from 7.1 percent to 2.1 percent. At the University of California at Berkeley, which eliminated its affirmative action programs starting with the class entering in the fall of 1998, the proportion of black students in the freshman class fell from 6.8 percent in 1997 to 2.4 percent the next year. Rice University, which abandoned its affirmative action policies after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the University of Texas Law School’s race-conscious policies in 1996, has battled declining minority enrollment by actively recruiting at predominantly-minority schools, asking about “cultural traditions” in their essays and taking note of whether English is an applicant’s second language or if an applicant was involved in a minority organization in high school. Oral arguments in the University of Michigan case will begin in March or April, and the court is expected to issue its ruling in June.