WASHINGTON–President Bush said Wednesday he would challenge the use of racial preferences in admissions to public universities while proposing an alternative way to guarantee diversity in college classrooms.
If the Supreme Court follows his approach, efforts to achieve diversity in higher education–and by extension, in other institutions throughout society–could shift to standards based on merit tests or socioeconomic class rather than race.
Bush instructed administration lawyers to make the argument in a brief filed Thursday at the Supreme Court, in a case challenging the use of racial preferences in admissions at the University of Michigan.
It is the first time the high court has considered a challenge to affirmative action in college admissions since 1978, and its ruling could affect all public colleges.
The court will hear oral arguments in March.
Bush’s two-step approach aimed to take back the initiative on racial politics by appealing to two groups, conservatives who oppose racial preferences and moderates who want to see the government help minorities.
“I support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education,” the president said. “But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes perspective students solely on their race.”
Bush criticized the Michigan system as unfair and unconstitutional. He said the point system it uses to grade applicants assigns more points for being a racial minority than for getting a perfect score on the SAT test.
“The motivation for such an admissions policy may be very good, but its result is discrimination, and that discrimination is wrong,” Bush said.
He said the country should look to another way of assuring diversity in admissions. He pointed to systems in California, Florida and Texas that guarantee admissions for the top graduates of every high school.
“In these states,” he said, “race-neutral policies have resulted in levels of minority attendance for incoming students that are close to, and in some cases slightly surpass, those under the old race-based approach.”
Bush decided on a “narrowly tailored” legal attack that addresses only the policies at the University of Michigan, without categorically arguing that race never can be a factor in admissions.
Democrats vowed to fight Bush, casting his opposition to racial preferences as opposition to minorities.
“Once again today, the administration has said as clearly by their action as anyone can that they will continue to side with those opposed to civil rights and opposed to diversity in this country,” said Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the Democrats’ leader in the Senate.
(Knight Ridder correspondents James Kuhnhenn and Shannon McCaffrey contributed to this report.)
© 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.