The Right Coast

June 23, 2004
Grutter and Gratz: Full Employment for College Administrators?
By Gail Heriot

Today is the one-year anniversary of Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. To those who heard about the Supreme Court's decisions last June only on television or radio, the battle over race-based admissions policies may have appeared to end in a tie score. While the Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School's admissions scheme in Grutter, it condemned as unconstitutional the University of Michigan's undergraduate policy in the companion case of Gratz.

But appearances can be misleading. In fact, Grutter was a huge loss for those who favor race neutrality. Gratz, on the other hand, will probably for all practical purposes turn out to be an insignificant victory. Any college or university whose race-based policy would be banned by Gratz can, without too much trouble, re-model its policy in the style approved by Grutter and achieve precisely the same results. Almost all of them now have.

Both Michigan policies gave extraordinary weight to race in determining who is admitted and who is not. The college gave 20 bonus points (out of 100 necessary for admittance) to all African American, Hispanic and American Indian applicants. The effect was huge--the equivalent of an entire letter grade on the applicant's high school GPA. All other things being equal, a student who earned straight Bs in high school would be treated as if he had earned straight As--if he happened to be from a desirable racial group.

The law school, on the other hand, had no crude point system. It claimed instead that its decisions were based on a nuanced evaluation of the whole person in which race was a minor consideration among many. But it was all just talk. In the end, the results demonstrated the the law school's obsession with race was every bit as over the top as the college's; the gap between the credentials of admitted minority students and rejected White and Asian students was every bit as wide. According the Judge Bernard Friedman,who presided over the Grutter trial and (unlike the Supreme Court)found the law school's policies unlawful, there was "mathematically irrefutable proof that race [was] indeed an enormously important factor."

In some ways it would have been better to lose both cases. The effect of Gratz is simply to cause colleges and universities to hire more admissions officers to go through the motions of reading each file before giving heavy preferential treatment to African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians. More admissions officers means more people whose jobs depend on the continuation of race-based admissions policies. That's not good news. People are funny that way: They like putting food on the table and can get pretty grumpy when they see others interfering with their ability to do so. It is worth noting that college adminstrators are just about the only group that in fact advocates race-based admissions policies.

Despite what you may have heard, the evidence indicates the faculty members are not big supporters of race-based admissions policies. Indeed, that's understatement. The evidence indicates they actually oppose it. In a 1996 nationwide study of full-time faculty members at public and private colleges and universities,the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research fould that racial, ethnic, and gender preferences are quite unpopular. Among those who knew their own institution's policy on admissions, 60% reported that their institution had either formal or informal policies giving preferences to applicants based on race, sex, or ethnicity. When asked whether their institutions should grant preferences to one applicant over another for admission based on race, sex, or ethnicity, 57% responded "no," 32% responded "yes," and 11% did not know or declined to state. Only college administrators differed.

Still, Grutter and Gratz simply close off one avenue for opponents of race-base admissions policies--the federal courts. A Gallup poll released just a day after the Court's decisions suggests the political possibilities. A strong majority (69%) said that college applicants "should be admitted solely on the basis of merit, even if that results in few minority students being admitted." Only 27% took the position that an applicant's race should be taken into consideration "even if that means admitting some minority students who otherwise would not be admitted." It's just a matter of time before this is translated into statute or popular initiative somewhere. Right now, with the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative back on its feet after a nasty court battle, it looks like Michigan itself may be the next state (after California and Washington State) to go race neutral.