In one of the most pivotal civil-rights decisions in a generation, a divided Supreme Court allowed the nation's colleges and universities to select students based in part on race, ruling Monday that diverse classrooms mold good citizens and strong leaders.
But the justices also issued a warning: Universities cannot use rigid systems that seem like quotas, and must adopt race-neutral admissions policies "as soon as practicable."
"In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity," Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the 5-4 majority.
In Kansas, higher education leaders said the rulings should have little effect on admissions policies at the state's universities.
"From a practical, pragmatic standpoint, we shouldn't have anything we'll need to realign -- we don't have a point system," said Janet Murguia, executive vice chancellor for university relations at Kansas University. "From a principle or conceptual standpoint, we see this as strongly supporting the goal of diversity."
If the decision had been different, though, she said it would have led to a fundamental shift in everything from the way university leaders talk about diversity in education to awarding minority scholarships.
"That could have caused a lot of concern and confusion here and in other institutions across the country," she said.
Led by O'Connor, the court said the University of Michigan Law School was not violating the Constitution's 14th Amendment by considering race as a plus factor for minority applicants.
O'Connor, echoing Justice Lewis F. Powell's language in the landmark Bakke affirmative action case 25 years ago, wrote that the goal of creating a diverse campus was a sufficiently compelling government interest to justify Michigan's consideration of race. She added, though, that race-conscious policies should not go on forever. Twenty-five years from now, she wrote, the court expected that racial preferences "will no longer be necessary."
The law school uses an inexact admissions formula that gives extra consideration to blacks, Hispanics and applicants from other groups the school says have historically suffered from discrimination.
The program has produced minority enrollment of between 12 percent and 20 percent over the past decade. There is no fixed target, the school said.
Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy -- a point system that quantified the importance of race -- did not survive the high court's scrutiny in another case. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for a 6-3 majority, said the policy made race a decisive factor in admissions decisions, and was therefore unconstitutional.
The difference was a matter of degree. The Constitution permits schools to consider an applicant's race as one among many factors when weighing which students will win a place at a top-notch school, O'Connor wrote in the more significant law school ruling. What a school cannot do, she and other justices said, is install inflexible or automatic racial preferences.
The law school and its backers argued that a "critical mass" of minority students is essential to break down racial stereotypes and benefits the entire student body. Minorities must be present in more than token numbers to ensure all students can interact, the university has said.
But no student's transcript will note that he or she "Works and Plays Well With Others," Justice Antonin Scalia retorted, in mocking reference to language more often associated with grade school report cards.
The importance of "cross-racial understanding," or of simply getting along with other people, is a lesson of life learned by "people three feet shorter and 20 years younger than the full-grown adults at the University of Michigan Law School, in institutions ranging from Boy Scout troops to public school kindergartens," Scalia wrote in dissent.
The decisions were the court's most anticipated opinions this term, and they highlight deep philosophical differences on matters of race. Eleven concurrences and dissents accompanied the opinions. And Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, issued a scorching derision of affirmative action as a well-meaning but patronizing attempt by whites to help blacks.
In a prepared statement, President Bush focused on the court's demand that universities work to institute race-neutral policies eventually.
"Race is a reality in American life," the president said. "Yet like the court, I look forward to the day when America will truly be a color-blind society. My administration will continue to work toward this important goal."
Opponents of affirmative action, including some of Bush's close advisers, had hoped the Supreme Court would use the opportunity to ban most consideration of race in any government decisions. The court is far more conservative than it was in 1978, when it last ruled on affirmative action in higher education admissions, and the justices have put heavy conditions on government affirmative action in other arenas over the past decade.
O'Connor said the value of diverse classrooms extends far beyond the campus. Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer joined her endorsement of the program in place at Michigan's law school. In addition to Thomas, Rehnquist, Scalia and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy also dissented.
In the companion case, O'Connor joined Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Stephen Breyer to strike down the undergraduate school's 150-point grading system. The school automatically gave minorities a 20-point bonus, more than for some measures of academic excellence, writing ability or leadership skills. Outstanding athletes also got 20 points, as did impoverished applicants.
Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg dissented.
The country's division -- and confusion --about affirmative action is reflected in two recent polls: One, by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, found that 63 percent of Americans favor college affirmative-action policies in general, but that nearly half believed they were not administered fairly.
A Gallup poll showed that 69 percent of Americans oppose racial preferences altogether, even though blacks and Hispanics are under-represented at the nation's most prestigious colleges.
Public opinion aside, civil-rights advocates and lawyers for Michigan and other schools said Monday's decision was a major victory.
They said it not only strengthened affirmative action in a college setting, but gave added impetus to the use of race in pursuit of diversity elsewhere.
"This country still continues to struggle with race, and it has been with us since before this country was created," said Ted Shaw, associate director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which had supported Michigan in the cases. "But even this conservative court would not turn the clock back. The court's decision reaffirms those waging the struggle for racial justice."
Not factor at KU
Lisa Pinamonti, director of admissions and scholarships at KU, said the university does not use race as a factor in undergraduate admissions. KU's policy, under the state's "qualified admissions," is to admit all Kansas residents who meet requirements in grade point average, class rank or ACT score.
Steve McAllister, dean of the KU School of Law, said the school can use race as one of many factors in admissions, but not as specifically as the Michigan undergraduate program.
"The decision won't affect a bit the way the law school operates," he said. "We've never had any concrete point system. We look at case files. We're looking for good people and broadly defined diversity, whether that's by intellectual experience or sometimes by race."
Reggie Robinson, president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents, said the Supreme Court's rulings didn't affect allocation of scholarships based on race, which are common at universities. He said another ruling someday could determine their legality.
Robinson, a former attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice who has taught civil rights courses in the law school, said he didn't expect many changes across the state following Monday's ruling.
"Any time the Supreme Court announces a principle and a set of standards, everybody has to look at what they're doing in the admissions world," he said. "My sense is that what public institutions in Kansas are doing is closer to what the court upheld in the Michigan law school decision than what the court struck down in the undergraduate admission decision."
The law school case is Grutter v. Bollinger, 02-241; the undergraduate case is Gratz v. Bollinger, 02-516.
-- This story includes information from J-W wire services.