Supreme Court to decide on affirmative action practices

Erin Harkless
Jack Darcher

Student reaction to recent developments in the affirmative action debate has been mixed, but the controversial issue has not yet sparked serious debate on campus.

Late last year, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear two affirmative action cases out of the University of Michigan, one from its law school and the other dealing with its undergraduate program. In the first case, Barbara Grutter contends she was denied admission into the law school because of her race, allowing the university to admit more minority applicants. In the second, Jennifer Gratz argues that her 1995 undergraduate application was rejected due in part to a flawed admissions system, which previously awarded more points to minority applicants.

Students at Washington University have expressed awareness of the gravity of affirmative action, but most feel the cases pending before the Supreme Court would do little to affect the experience at WU, especially because WU is a private school.

“As a top-tier school academically, WU attracts quality students from all walks of life,” said sophomore Andy Kennedy. “For that reason, I don’t think race factors very highly into the decision to admit a student.”

Kennedy went on to note that in his experience, affirmative action issues have not incited much debate on campus in the past. He cited a past event held by the Conservative Leadership Association where Ward Connerly, a prominent opponent of affirmative action, spoke and received some heated queries, but not at the level he received at other locations. Kennedy also noted that discussions on the issue have not been common in many of his classes.

Jennifer Tyus, a second-year student in the WU School of Law and the president of the Black Law Students Association, noted that race will always be an issue, but she cautioned against the idea that all students of a given ethnic or racial group share the same experiences.

“Some of my classmates believe that race should not be taken into account because if you look at other factors such as socioeconomic status, the school will automatically admit minorities students and those students will add to the diversity,” said Tyus. “I would have to disagree-the assumption then becomes all members of a specific minority group have similar experiences, and that is a dangerous assumption.”

Some students express the concern that affirmative action has become a type of reverse racism and discrimination, which rewards under-qualified minority students. Their hope is that the Supreme Court will be able to better address and clarify the issue in the pending case.

Admissions counselors in all of WU’s programs, however, maintain that they strive to obtain a comprehensive view of each applicant. In the WU School of Law, counselors look at the complete file of an applicant, attempting to measure both the objective and subjective portions of an application.

According to Mary Ann Clifford, law school director of admissions, WU appreciates geographic, gender, age, and racial diversity in its student body. She also noted that many in the admissions community are watching for the outcome of the case, but that each individual school has its own unique viewpoint in regards to diversity.

“Every law school’s philosophy in regards to diversity differs,” said Clifford. “Admissions procedures emulate these attitudes. We understand that law school is a time to share ideas, and when trying to do this it’s imperative to have people with different backgrounds and experiences.”

For the incoming law school class, 19 percent of students are minorities, and 48 percent are women. They range in age from 20 to 51.

At the undergraduate level, admissions counselors look at the whole application of each student, taking the high school transcript, extracurricular activities, recommendations, test scores, and personal essay into account when making a decision.

Affirmative action rose to prominence through a key court case in the 1970s. Alan Bakke, a white student applying to the University of California-Davis medical school, sued after he was not admitted. The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that racial quotas could not be used in admissions decisions, but that affirmative action as it is known today is legal.

Other cases dealing with affirmative action have bounced around the federal court system in recent years, but the University of Michigan cases mark the first definitive stand to be taken by the Supreme Court since 1978.

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