Again Struggle with
Affirmative Action Practices in
College and University Enrollments
pending federal court appeal provides the most recent evidence that lawyers
and judges continue to wrestle with the issue of diversity in higher education.
In Smith v. University of Washington Law School, three white individuals
have claimed a denial of their constitutional rights in the rejection
of their law school applications.
Ms. Smith had spent several years attending community colleges before
she enrolled in the University of Washington's undergraduate business
Her grade point average and Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores were
high; however, the law school rejected her application.
Grade point average and LSAT scores were not the sole criteria law school
officials considered in reviewing applications. The admission process
also afforded favorable consideration to an applicant's racial or ethnic
status (termed "diversity factor").
Arguably, the absence of a diversity factor was dispositive for Ms. Smith's
application. The Dean of the law school admitted during the course of
the litigation that, had she been an African-American, Ms. Smith would
have been admitted to the school.
Ultimately, a federal district court decided against the Smith
plaintiffs, holding that the law school's admission process was similar
to that approved by Justice Powell in his Regents of the University
of California v. Bakke opinion. (See In Brief, Fall 1996)
The Smith plaintiffs, however, have appealed the ruling to the
US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In their arguments before that
court, the plaintiffs' lawyers have argued that preferences such as those
the law school employed are discriminatory. They add that since the Bakke
ruling, the US Supreme Court "has made clear that any form of race
discrimination must be justified by a compelling government interest and
be narrowly tailored to meet that interest."
In defense of the law school's admissions process, the school's counsel
urge the value of diversity: "The educational benefits of diversity
in law schools hardly need discussion. Imagine two first-year constitutional
law classes discussing Equal Protection law and the role of the judiciary
in addressing racism in American society. One class is all white, and
the other class has several black, Latino, Asian American, and foreign
class would have the better discussion? In which class would the students
learn more from exchanging views and experiences with each other?
there any doubt that diversity among the student body--with race as one
of many factors considered in making a student body 'diverse'--makes for
a better education?"
To date, the US Supreme Court has issued no definitive ruling on the issue
of diversity in higher education enrollments since Bakke. Moreover,
many dispute whether Justice Powell's discussion in Bakke is indeed
definitive, as a majority of the Court did not join in the opinion.
in the Summer 2000 Edition of In Brief