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May 30, 2002

Pitt officials endorse ruling that race can be a factor in admissions

Pitt officials are applauding a federal appeals court's recent ruling that the University of Michigan law school can take race and ethnicity into account in admitting students, as long as the school doesn't use a quota system.

The 5-4 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit conflicted with rulings by two other federal appeals courts, but none is binding on Pitt. The federal appeals court that covers Pennsylvania, the 3rd Circuit, hasn't ruled yet on the legality of racial preferences in admissions.

But administrators here, like their counterparts at universities across the nation, expect that the U.S. Supreme Court eventually will rule on the issue — probably in the next year or two, predicted Pitt School of Law Dean David Herring.

The plaintiff in the 6th Circuit case, a white applicant who sued in 1997 after being denied admission to Michigan's law school, has vowed to appeal to the high court.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision could affect admissions policies at Pitt, and not just at its School of Law.

"Law schools have been a primary target for litigation on this issue, for whatever reason, but the whole University would be affected if the Supreme Court were to overturn Bakke," said Herring, referring to the court's last decision dealing directly with affirmative action in college admissions.

The 1978 Bakke decision involved allegations by a white man, Allan Bakke, that he was rejected for admission to the medical school at the University of California at Davis because of his race. A black student with his qualifications would have been admitted, Bakke argued.

In a 5-1 ruling, the Supreme Court struck down a separate policy for minority applicants at the UC-Davis medical school but appeared to support the idea of racial favoritism, short of quotas. Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote that racial quotas were unconstitutional, although colleges could legally consider race as a "plus factor" in admissions, in the interest of creating a diverse learning environment.

Opponents of Bakke maintain that Powell was speaking only for himself, a view supported by federal appeals courts in the 5th Circuit (covering Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) and the 11th Circuit (Alabama, Florida and Georgia) in striking down race-conscious college admissions policies in 1996 and 2001, respectively.

But affirmative action proponents say Powell's opinion represented the views of the other four justices in the Bakke majority. Early this month, the 6th Circuit's majority agreed with the latter argument, adding that "Bakke remains the law of the land until the Supreme Court instructs otherwise."

That is Pitt's official position in a nutshell, according to Elizabeth Baranger, vice provost for Graduate Studies, and Betsy Porter, director of Admissions and Financial Aid.

"Bakke is the only Supreme Court decision we have" on race-conscious admissions, Porter said. "Our interpretation of Bakke is that diversity in itself can be an institutional goal, and race can be a consideration in admitting students, although quotas are not permitted.

"In the wake of the 6th Circuit Court's recent decision, we have not received any new interpretation from the [Pitt] General Counsel's office to alter what we've been doing."

Just how does Pitt consider race in admitting undergraduates?

"It's an optional piece of information on the application, voluntarily submitted just as age and gender are," Porter replied.

"If students are admissible, they will be admitted regardless of their race," she said. "If students are not admissible, they will not be admitted, regardless of their race. Where this has some relevance is in situations that we would determine to be marginal or borderline, where you have students who are coming from disadvantaged environments and they've successfully overcome those disadvantages. It's likely that a disproportionate number of these students will be African-American."

Vice Provost Baranger said, "We don't have quotas, and we consider a wide variety of things" in admitting students to Pitt graduate and professional programs. "We look at their grades, essays they submit, interviews, GRE [Graduate Record Examination] scores — it's a composite picture that emerges."

Law Dean Herring said: "Our school practices affirmative action in the sense that we use race as a plus-factor in admissions decisions" to promote a more diverse student body. Next fall's entering class of 240 will include 18 African-Americans, said Herring.

"Certainly, the biggest plus-factor is given to African-Americans. Hispanics are given a very significant plus, Asian-Americans a little less so," the dean said. "It is factored in, but there's no formula and it's not a quota system. [Race] is just something that our admissions committee will take into account as it considers applicants."

In arguing the dissenting view in this month's 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, Judge Danny Boggs said the University of Michigan law school's admissions system was a "straightforward instance of racial discrimination by a state institution."

Boggs noted that, in 1995, 100 percent of black applicants with undergraduate grade point averages between 2.75 and 2.99 and scores on the Law School Admissions Test of 161 to 163 were accepted, but no white applicants in those ranges were admitted.

— Bruce Steele

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