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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 23:46 GMT 00:46 UK
University race case divides US
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent, in Michigan

The row over university admissions in Britain - with some independent schools saying Bristol University was discriminating against their pupils - is a mere tea party compared to a legal battle working its way through the US courts.

By the end of this month, the Supreme Court will deliver a landmark ruling which will determine the future of what the Americans call "affirmative action" in university admissions.

It could end the practice of giving special consideration to students from under-represented ethnic minorities in an attempt to achieve greater racial diversity on America's campuses.


It could be a sign of what is in store for British universities as they try to meet government demands to admit a wider range of students, especially those from poorer backgrounds or under-represented ethnic groups.

Anti-affirmative action placard
Affirmative action has proved highly divisive

This week, next term's freshmen students were being shown around the University of Michigan's campus as part of an orientation programme.

They may have noticed that the university's leaders were a little distracted as they prepared for the end-game in a legal battle that has run for six years.

Public and private universities right across the US are watching the outcome carefully. So are others, such as big corporations and the US military, which have joined the case in support of affirmative action.

President Bush raised the stakes earlier this year when he attacked Michigan's approach as "fundamentally flawed".

The issue was brought to the courts by three white students who alleged they had been unfairly rejected from courses because the university's admissions system made it easier for African-American, Hispanic or Native American students to win places.

The university does not deny having a policy designed to achieve greater ethnic and racial diversity on campus but insists its admissions policies are both fair and legal.

The Supreme Court judges will effectively settle the law with their ruling. Their job is to interpret the Constitution. But, in effect, they will be deciding which takes priority: achieving diversity on campus or treating everyone equally, irrespective of race or colour.

Reverse discrimination?

Affirmative action has a long history in the US. In the 1960s, urban riots in cities like Detroit - just half an hour along Interstate 94 from Michigan's Ann Arbor campus - helped trigger affirmative action policies under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson in the 1960s.

Change was needed. Despite the landmark Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1954 (which stated that separate education was not equal), education in the US had remained highly segregated.

Almost half a century on, education is still highly segregated. Indeed there are signs that in high schools it is becoming more segregated again.

At the same time, affirmative action policies have started to provoke charges of reverse discrimination. Critics say it is as wrong to discriminate against white students now as it was to discriminate against black students in the past.

George Bush
President Bush has attacked Michigan's admissions policy

As you drive from inner-city Detroit to the University of Michigan's impressive campus you can see why some believe affirmative action has not yet run its course.

Detroit's population is more than 80% African-American. The proportion of African-Americans on campus is just 8%.

Among the freshmen on their orientation visit this week, or in the lecture theatre of the graduate law school, you had to look hard to spot the black students.

The university has tried to change this. It believes there should be a "critical mass" of students from under-represented minorities.

But, as one of the best public universities in the country, Michigan attracts around five applicants for every place.


Entry is highly competitive: students need good high school grades and university entrance test scores. Unfortunately, many of Detroit's inner-city schools are amongst the lowest-scoring in the state.

Michigan is unapologetic about its policy. It points to previous court rulings which say there is a "compelling need" to aim for diversity on campus.

While setting quotas or targets for students from any particular ethnic group was outlawed by a previous test case, Michigan insists its policy does not mean quotas. It only admits students it believes are good enough to complete its courses.

Reverend Jesse Jackson
Civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson is an advocate of affirmative action

Instead of quotas it has a points-based admission system which gives special weighting to undergraduate applicants from certain ethnic minorities. Although this is a guide to admissions tutors, not an absolute entry tariff, it lies at the heart of the case.

Students can be awarded up to 150 points on this "selection index score". Of these, 110 are for academic criteria but up to 20 points are available for "under-represented minorities".

Up to 20 points are also available for students from "predominantly minority high schools".

The university defends this system, saying it cannot be blind to race and colour if it is to achieve a diverse student body.

It is also keen to point out that points are also available for a host of other factors: being an athlete, coming from remote northern Michigan, for socio-economic background, or for being a close relative of a Michigan graduate.

But critics counter that while these other factors may not all be fair, they are legal. They insist that discriminating on the basis of colour is against the US Constitution.

The nine Supreme Court judges are expected to be divided on this most difficult, yet crucial, decision.

It is said that America's biggest problem is race: a huge amount is riding on the result, not only for American universities, but for American society.

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Celebration or segregation?
17 Jun 03  |  Education
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01 Apr 03  |  Americas
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04 Mar 03  |  Education
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20 Feb 03  |  Scotland
'Why Bristol is right'
22 Mar 03  |  Education

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