Monday the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the University of Michigan's use of race or ethnicity as one of several factors in its admissions process is constitutional. Not since the seminal 1978 decision in University of California vs. Baake has the highest court in the land looked squarely at the issue of affirmative action.
Affirmative action is about many things. It is about racial equality and integration. It is about the recognition that standardized test scores and grades do not necessarily capture qualification and merit. It is about the recognition that the playing field is not level in our society; some schools are better than others and parental income inevitably influences a child's scholastic ability.
Affirmative action has brought to light that admissions programs have never been "pure." Schools routinely recruit international students, children of alumni, or applicants from different parts of the country and do so in the absence of any public criticism even though several of these criteria negatively effect African-American and Latino applicants.
And affirmative action is about the value of a diverse society. This is the core issue that has been fundamental to this case from the start.
According to Patricia Y. Gurin, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and interim dean of the LSA, diversity in higher education serves to break "patterns of racial segregation and separation historically rooted in our national life." Moreover, students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills.
For these reasons, a number of our largest corporations, such as General Motors, supported the university despite the controversy of the issue.
They understand that eliminating affirmative action will deprive businesses of better employees in the business world. GM has said, "Only a well-educated, highly diverse workforce, comprised of people who have learned to work productively and creatively with individuals from a multitude of races and ethnic, religious and cultural histories, can maintain America's global competitiveness in the increasingly diverse and interconnected world economy."
Just look at schools that have recently stopped using affirmative action and the impact is clear. Latino and African-American admissions at the University of Texas dropped by 88 percent in one year.
Latino students declined by 35 percent and the number of African Americans declined by nearly 72 percent at schools in California. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that if the Supreme Court rules against the University the results will be as catastrophic here in Michigan.
In 1964 U-M's law school class was all white and all male. Of the students who graduated from the law school between l950 and l970, only 44 were black; none were Latino or Native American. By the late 1960s the law school adopted an affirmative action plan and still only reports that 8 percent of its 38,000 students are black and 4.3 percent are Hispanic.
There is no doubt that we have come a long way. And along that way we learned that the university only admits students, of any race, who are qualified and deserve to be there. I sure hope the Supreme Court doesn't turn the clock back.
By Kary L. Moss, Special to The Detroit News