The Supreme Court of the United States has decided to hear arguments in a Michigan case that will provide it an opportunity to revisit the legality of affirmative action in university admissions. The specific case that the Supreme Court will hear involves an appeal brought by a woman who was denied admission to the University of Michigan law school.
Her claim is simple: Her grades and test scores, while below those of other white students admitted to the law school, were higher than many of those of minority students who were admitted. Her challenge is, in essence, to the law school's use of race as a factor in its admissions process. In bringing this case, she has effectively challenged a practice common in universities throughout much of the United States in the past two decades.
It is extremely difficult to predict how the Supreme Court will decide this case. The court has, in recent years, moved away from supporting affirmative action in a number of contexts, but legal scholars and specialists on education argue that university admissions are a special case and that the need for diversity in education provides particularly strong justification for affirmative action policies.
No one, however, believes, given the current makeup of the court, that affirmative action in university admissions is safe. On the contrary, there is a good possibility that the court will decide that the use of race as an admissions factor is impermissible. If this does turn out to be the decision of the court, what then?
First, we must remember that affirmative action is not an end in itself, rather it is a means to an end. The end is the achievement of true diversity in American educational institutions, the purpose of which, itself, is to assure equality of opportunity in American society.
Education remains one of the most important means by which men and women can achieve social and economic mobility as well as enrich their lives in countless other ways. The American ideal, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence's guarantee of the right to the "pursuit of happiness," is that all of us have the right to achieve as much as we are individually capable of achieving. Diversity in universities provides this opportunity for students. How, then, can we achieve diversity without affirmative action?
I believe that there are a number of ways this can be accomplished, if we, as a society, are willing to spend the time and money necessary to do this. One possibility is to revive the idea of "open admissions" at universities, to permit everyone who wants a university degree to have a chance to get one. This is not easy. It is, first of all, expensive, because universities must have the resources to provide educational opportunities to large numbers of students and to do so in a meaningful way (which may well require remedial courses for many students of all races and backgrounds).
Second, open admissions can be painful both for students and faculty because many students will fail to get degrees. The example of Icelandic higher education is instructive. Every year approximately 500 students enroll in the first year of the law program at the University of Iceland. By the end of the fifth year, the normal graduation time, only a dozen or so remain. All the rest have either dropped out or failed the course.
A second possibility is potentially even more expensive. The great problem with affirmative action policies today, as I see it, is that admissions processes tend to depend to a large extent on a few easily quantified factors: standardized tests and grade point averages. If admissions standards could be broadened to focus on each individual's achievements, evaluated by personal interviews, serious reference letters, personal statements, writing samples and the whole universe of things that make each of us unique, then I think we could achieve true diversity without simplistic numerical cut-offs and comparisons.
Of course, to have such an admissions process at schools with thousands of applicants would be prohibitively expensive in many cases. On the other hand, the end result might well justify the time and trouble.
Whether one agrees with either of the two alternatives I have outlined, if the Supreme Court does outlaw affirmative action in university admissions, university administrators will face the need to make major decisions which will shape American universities and American society in the decades to come. Let us hope that they can find the wisdom - and the funding - to do so in a positive way.