WASHINGTON – Maryland officials are drawing up court papers in support of the University of Michigan’s race-based admissions policy, which President Bush on Wednesday called “divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution.”
The Michigan policy, which is scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court, gives bonus points to blacks, Hispanics and American Indians.
Unsuccessful white candidates sued the university, saying the policy discriminates against them. But Michigan officials counter that there is a compelling government interest in producing a diverse student body, which justifies the consideration of race in the admissions process.
While admissions policies at Maryland’s colleges and universities differ from Michigan’s, they do consider race an important criteria when admitting students, said Andrew Baida, solicitor general in the Maryland attorney general’s office.
That is why Baida said the state, along with New York, is preparing a friend of the court brief in support of Michigan’s policy.
“It is a state’s sovereign right to educate its students in a way that it feels best fosters a learning environment,” he said. “We affirm and defend the validity of our current admission processes.”
The process varies from campus to campus. The University of Maryland, College Park, uses 24 criteria — including race — to choose applicants, said President Clayton Mote. He said the university supports “the idea that racial diversity is important when building a class.”
Towson University Admissions Director Louise Shulack said her campus abandoned race as a factor in the admissions process in the 1990s when courts began to challenge the practice. Now, she said, Towson actively works to enroll minorities through strategic recruitment programs.
John Anderson, chief of education affairs for the Maryland Attorney General’s office, said every applicant’s race is considered in the admissions process but “there is not a single factor that gets you in.”
“There is a whole host of factors — academics, music, drama, essays — racial diversity is only a part of the mix officers are looking for,” Anderson said.
But it is an important part in Maryland, which is trying to erase a legacy of institutional segregation, said Anderson, noting that the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was denied admission to the University of Maryland because he was black.
States whose universities have dropped affirmative action practices have seen a drop in minority enrollment, especially at the more selective institutions, said Ronald Walters, a government professor at College Park.
“If the case is decided against the University of Michigan, a pattern of resegregation will ensue,” Walters said. “It could start a national trend that would free universities, especially in the South, to not have to worry about diminishing numbers of minority students at their institutions again.”
But neither he nor Anderson believes Maryland would let minority recruitment and enrollment drop, regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Michigan case. Walters said the university could still boost minority student admissions by favoring students based on geographic or socioeconomic criteria, rather than on race alone.
They said that is what happened after courts struck down the university’s Benjamin Banneker scholarships, which were available only to black students. The university compensated for the loss of that program by targeting students in Baltimore City neighborhoods that Walters said are almost entirely black.
Bush said Wednesday that admissions based on geography or economic factors can achieve the goal of a diverse student body “without falling back on unconstitutional quotas.”
“Systems in California and Florida and Texas have proven that by guaranteeing admissions to the top students from high schools throughout the state, including low income neighborhoods, colleges can attain broad racial diversity,” the president said in prepared remarks.
“In these states, race-neutral admissions policies have resulted in levels of minority attendance for incoming students that are close to, and in some instances slightly surpass, those under the old race-based approach,” he said.
While Bush said much progress has been made in diversifying college campuses, he conceded that much more needs to be done.
In statements before the president’s speech, however, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Baltimore, said the administration should “synchronize conscience with conduct.” Cummings, who is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said the caucus will also file a brief in support of the University of Michigan’s admissions policy.
“How can we deny our great public universities the modest means that remain to achieve that great and compelling interest (of diversity)?” he asked.