U. of Michigan Alters Admissions Use of Race

By GREG WINTER
The New York Times
August 29, 2003

The University of Michigan unveiled an admissions policy yesterday that preserves affirmative action but applies it less strictly, without assigning any numerical advantage, or extra points, to minority applicants.

The new approach, a response to the Supreme Court's decisions spelling out how race may be used in admissions, will bring the university in line with the bulk of smaller, selective colleges nationwide. It may also serve as a model for how other public universities can seek to create diverse campuses in a constitutionally permissible — though significantly more expensive — way.

For Michigan, the costs of the admissions process should rise by $1.5 million to $2 million, or more than 33 percent. It takes effect this fall.

"Our fundamental values haven't changed," Mary Sue Coleman, president of the university, said in a statement in Ann Arbor. "We believe that in order to create a dynamic learning environment for all our students, we must bring together students who are highly qualified academically and who represent a wide range of backgrounds and experiences."

When the Supreme Court affirmed in June the right of colleges to consider race in admissions, it rejected the use of a strict point system to do so, stripping away a tool some public universities have employed to sift through tens of thousands of applications. The problem with such an approach, the court found, is that for some applicants it can turn race into the decisive factor, instead of just one of many.

In response, Michigan has eliminated its point system, whether for judging academics, extracurricular activities, alumni connections or anything else. Instead, it says, it will peer more deeply into the unique circumstances of each student, making academics the priority while treating all other factors, including race, on a more or less equal footing.

In the language of college admissions, the approach is called a "holistic review," and the university will have to hire more than 20 additional application readers and counselors, though it says the extra money is well spent.

"This is the lifeblood of the institution," said Paul N. Courant, the university provost, emphasizing that the new policy should achieve the same racial diversity as its predecessor, and perhaps more economic diversity as well. He added, "There is nothing duller than a classroom of people whose backgrounds and training are identical."

On the same day it rejected Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy by 6 to 3, the Supreme Court upheld the more holistic approach of the university's law school in a 5-to-4 vote, saying, "Diversity is essential to its educational mission."

In a briefing yesterday, Michigan's lawyers said they were confident that the new undergraduate policy was constitutionally sound because it essentially duplicated the law school's sanctioned approach.

Michigan's opponents in the Supreme Court case agreed that the new policy adhered to the court's decision, which called for "individualized consideration" of the many traits that "contribute to the unique setting of higher education." But while the plaintiffs' lawyers said they had no immediate plans to challenge Michigan's new approach, they said its implementation would be closely watched.

"The devil is in the details," said Curt Levey, director of legal affairs at the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, which represented the plaintiffs in the case. "The wording is good, but we're going to be monitoring to see how big a role race plays. They say they're going to do a holistic review, but we're going to be looking to see if they automatically put race above other factors."

Other opponents were more critical. In Sacramento, Justin Jones, policy director for the American Civil Rights Coalition, which has vowed to place an initiative eliminating state-sponsored affirmative action on the Michigan ballot next year, called the new policy "as shameful and as belittling" as the old one.

Though it still asks openly about race, the new application is longer, seeking more essays from students and more information from high schools. Mr. Courant speculated that "we'll know more about these students than any other class."

Without points, though, some amount of personal bias is inevitable, educators said.

"In essence, it becomes a more subjective review," said Mabel G. Freeman, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at Ohio State University, in Columbus. Her office also used points until this summer. Doing away with that system will take "more staff, more readers and more money," Ms. Freeman said, though she is not sure how much more.

Defenders of affirmative action applauded the willingness to increase admissions budgets when extra state dollars are scarce.

Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard law professor who served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton's review of affirmative action in the 1990's, said, "It's a very visible symbol to cautious institutions that there is a way to stay the course and that they need not cower in the face of continuing litigation or political threats."