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Last Updated: Monday, 23 June, 2003, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
Landmark ruling on university admissions

Mike Baker
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent, in Michigan

They were young, enthusiastic, excited - and overwhelmingly white.

Next term's "freshmen" students were getting a feel for their new life on campus at the University of Michigan, a few days before the US Supreme Court was to make its landmark rulings on the university's use of affirmative action in admissions.

Michigan freshmen
Michigan's students know they are an elite

As the students toured the glorious campus, with its lush lawns and impressive campanile, they knew they were the elite.

Michigan is one of America's top public universities, with five applicants for every undergraduate place.

As they sat in the "orientation" lecture, watched by proud parents, they learned the words of Michigan's theme song, "Hail To The Victors!"

Americans identify strongly with their university. In a relatively class-less society, the "school" you attend is an important badge of identity and success.

Access to good universities is also about access to good jobs, higher incomes, and acceptance into American society. So far black Americans have not shared equally in any of these.

Just 8% of Michigan students are African-American. That is only about half the proportion of black people in the state and the nation as a whole.

More significantly, the nearest big city, Detroit - just half an hour from Michigan's main campus - is over 80% black.

The university has long been unhappy that certain groups - African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans - are under-represented on campus. It believes a racially diverse university is essential to a balanced education.

So, for some years now, it has been practising affirmative action in its admissions policies. This means taking a student's ethnic origin into account in deciding who to admit.

Legal cases

Affirmative action has been part of American public policy since the 1960s following racial tensions in urban America, including a "race riot" in Detroit in 1967.

But the University of Michigan's policy was challenged by white students who felt they may have been treated unconstitutionally.

There were two legal challenges.

Patrick  Hamacher
Patrick Hamacher: Felt policy was unfair

The first was against the university's policies for admissions to the graduate law school. This used race as one of many factors in deciding admissions but did not give any specific loading to race or colour. This method was upheld by the court.

The other case was brought by two undergraduate applicants.

One of them, Patrick Hamacher, grew up in Flint, Michigan. As a boy his ambition was to go to the University of Michigan.

He says he was "crushed" when he failed to win a place to read medicine.

Patrick agrees with the aim of diversity but says the university's methods amount to "artificially engineering and discriminating against others - and that is just not right".

The main challenge was to the university's use of an admissions index which awards up to 20 points, out of a maximum of 150, to applicants from "under-represented minorities".

Michigan is at pains to point out that it also awards admissions points for many other factors. These include: socio-economic status, attending a "minority" high school, being a relative of a former student, and exceptional athletic ability.

Marvin Krislov
Marvin Krislov: Aiming for greater diversity

Nevertheless, Michigan University's vice-president, Marvin Krislov, insists racial background has to be a factor if the university is to have a diverse and representative student body.

"Overwhelmingly the students that are applying are Caucasian", says Krislov, "so it's very important that we consider race and ethnicity, as just one factor amongst many."

Not everyone at Michigan agrees.

Professor Carl Cohen has taught philosophy there since 1955. He is no Conservative. In fact he is a champion of civil liberties who, decades ago, was under "red watch" by the police during the McCarthy-ite witch-hunt era.

Carl Cohen
It is fundamental to the fairness of the country that people are not treated differently because their skin is brown, or black, or white
Professor Carl Cohen

"We're dealing here with a Constitutional question," he says. He argues it is "horrendous" to treat people differently because of the colour of their skin.

"We are a country of many colours and many origins and it is fundamental to the fairness of the country that people are not treated differently because their skin is brown, or black, or white."

Monday's ruling offers something to both sides. The use of the points index has been judged illegal but the principle of using race as one of many factors has been upheld.

Black community leaders will now have to assess how this leaves affirmative action policies.

Kwame  Kilpatrick
Mayor Kilpatrick backs affirmative action

The mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick - one of the Democratic Party's new and fast-rising stars - believes affirmative action is still vital.

A giant of a man, Kilpatrick was elected by a community which has not forgotten the legacy of the race riots of the past, which hastened the "white flight" to the suburbs, leaving Detroit such a segregated city.

"We have to figure out what type of America we live in," he says. "We want an America where everyone has opportunity.

"In one decision, the very fabric of our society could be put in jeopardy. This is a critical time in American history".

These views strike a chord at Renaissance High School in Detroit. The vast majority of pupils here are from ethnic minorities.

Bryan Barnhill
Bryan Barnhill just wants "a level playing field"

Bryan Barnhill is an ambitious African-American who is aiming for a top university. He believes positive discrimination is fair because it levels the playing-field for people like himself.

As he puts it, "growing up on a Detroit block is a disadvantage".

"If all other things were equal then there would be no need for affirmative action", he adds.

Another student, Adrienne Henderson, agrees. As an African-American from the inner city she says "most people from my background need help to get into a good school".

To those who say affirmative action is discriminatory and patronising, Adrienne returns this challenge: "Most of the people saying this haven't lived in our shoes and if they came here and walked around our school - that would open their eyes to the advantages they have had."

Adrienne Henderson
If they came here and walked around our school - that would open their eyes to the advantages they have had
Student Adrienne Henderson

The issue of affirmative action is complex.

There are black students and graduates who oppose it. They don't like the way it can be hard to shake off the nagging doubt that their success has been, in part, down to their colour not just their abilities.

There are also those who argue that affirmative action hasn't worked for African-Americans who are still under-represented on America's elite campuses.

Yet, despite the rational arguments and the balancing of benefits, it is individual experience which is most telling.

On the one hand is Patrick Hamacher who fears he was denied the university of his choice because of the colour of his skin.

On the other is the principal of Renaissance High School, Deborah Harley. As a young African-American some decades ago she got into college on a programme which took a quota of black students.

"We felt like white mice," she recalls, "but it gave me the ambition and drive to come back to Detroit as a teacher.

School principal Deborah Harley
School principal Deborah Harley benefited from a quota system

"I do what I do because of affirmative action. It brought through a generation of black people who saw themselves as something other than factory workers."

As a school principal, she believes the circumstances which gave rise to affirmative action are still present.

Speaking softly, she says "racism is still alive and well. It is still there. It just wears a different hat".

The court's double ruling leaves the future in doubt. The principle of using race as one factor amongst many in admissions has been upheld.

But universities such as Michigan must return to the drawing board to find a method for undergraduate admissions which fits with the Constitution.

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