Students at UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law staged a rally supporting affirmative action on Monday, hours after the nation’s high court ruled to uphold the basic tenets of race preferences in college admissions.
But local legal scholars said the Supreme Court’s decision will have little to no effect on California universities.
“This largely codifies the status quo,” said UC Berkeley law professor Jesse Choper.
While the court ruled Monday that colleges may consider race in admissions, it did not require the practice. So in California, public institutions like the University of California and California State University will remain subject to the voter-approved Proposition 209, which bans affirmative action in public admissions and hiring.
Private institutions like Stanford University, which are not subject to Proposition 209, will be allowed to continue with admissions policies that weigh race as one of many factors.
The Supreme Court, in its most important statement on affirmative action in a generation, upheld a University of Michigan Law School admissions policy that weighed race as one of several considerations, ruling that the state had a “compelling” interest in promoting diversity on campus.
In a separate decision, however, the court struck down an undergraduate admissions policy at the university which automatically gave minority students 20 points on a 150-point scale that was used to rank prospective students.
The rulings were in line with the court’s Bakke decision of 1978, which rejected hard-and-fast quotas but allowed the use of race as a “factor” in college admissions and hiring decisions.
Although the rulings apply only to admissions at public institutions, they are expected to have broad impacts at private universities and businesses across the country.
UC Regent Ward Connerly, a conservative activist who led the fight to pass Proposition 209 in 1996, lamented the court’s split ruling—supporting the general use of race, but striking down the point-based system.
“The decisions handed down today by the Supreme Court are, indeed, mixed and ambiguous,” he said in a statement Monday. “These conflicting decisions consign our nation to another generation of litigation and agony about the constitutionally permissible uses of ‘race.’”
University of California President Richard Atkinson said, in a statement, that he welcomed the court’s ruling on the law school policy “as a supporter of affirmative action.”
“[But] as president of the University of California, I also respect the decision of the California voters, who in 1996 eliminated consideration of race and ethnicity in state university admissions,” he said. “The University of California will continue to work through other, legal means to achieve excellence and diversity on our campuses.”
UC’s admissions of “underrepresented minorities” —blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans—dropped from 18.8 percent in 1997 to 16.7 percent in 1998, the first year Proposition 209 went into effect.
Since then, UC has guaranteed admission to the top 4 percent of students at every California high school, struggling and successful alike, and instituted “comprehensive review” in admissions, weighing intangible factors like success in the face of adversity alongside traditional measures, like grades and SAT scores. With the new policies in place, admissions of underrepresented minorities have jumped every year and now stand at 19.8 percent.
Opponents of affirmative action say the 4 percent program and comprehensive review represent an attempt to circumvent Proposition 209. But the university contends that it is simply trying to reach out to new communities and get a fuller sense of every applicant.
Stanford law professor Pamela Karlan said the UC’s outreach programs appear to be race neutral, well within the law and in no need of Supreme Court review. Monday’s decisions, she said, have no bearing on the new policies.
“A 4 percent plan that is race neutral might not even come within the range of what is being considered here,” Karlan said.
At the press conference and rally Monday afternoon, a gathering of UC Berkeley students welcoming the court’s decision and rallying the faithful for the fight against Connerly’s next effort, the controversial Racial Privacy Initiative. The measure, slated for the March 2004 ballot, would prevent the state from collecting data on race.
Proponents say the initiative marks an important step toward a color-blind society. Opponents say it will block vital research and eliminate any evidence of racial discrimination in public health, housing and education.
“[The Supreme Court ruling] is a great victory for America, but our work is not yet done in California,” said Mohammad Kashmiri, a third-year law student at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. “We’ve got to defeat Ward Connerly’s new proposition.”
Andrea Irvin, president of Berkeley College Republicans, said she was “disappointed” that the Supreme Court upheld the consideration of race in admissions, but vowed to continue the fight for Connerly’s initiative on campus.