Supreme Court Ruling
Ensures a Class That’s
Excellent and Diverse


AFFIRMATIVE ACTION | On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 5-to-4 decision to protect the Affirmative Action policy used in the University of Michigan law school’s admissions process. With Justice Sandra Day O’Connor providing the swing vote, the outcome of Grutter v. Bollinger reaffirmed the constitutionality of considering race as a factor in admissions decisions.

Penn and seven peer institutions submitted an amicus curiae, or ‘friend of the court,’ brief last February in favor of Michigan. “I am delighted that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld our right to take race into account as one factor among many to ensure that we are able to assemble a class that is both excellent and diverse,” says Jeanne Arnold, director of Penn’s Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs.

In writing the majority opinion, O’Connor deferred to the argument that racial diversity in the classroom yields substantial educational benefits to a student body. However, in the separate case of Gratz v. Bollinger, the court struck down the University of Michigan’s undergraduate-admissions policy of automatically awarding points to applicants from underrepresented racial groups.

Both decisions, however, have done little to calm debates among universities and public-interest groups about the appropriateness of Affirmative Action, especially since O’Connor calls for “sunset provisions” in Grutter “to determine whether racial preferences are still necessary” in the future.

Dr. Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history at the University, sees O’Connor’s unofficial time limit as a unique opportunity: “I’m excited about the decision and look forward to Penn showing great leadership and moving toward the goal O’Connor set for us in the next 25 years,” she says, explaining that the goal is to attain a “critical mass” of African American, Latino, and Native American students at Penn. “If there was any doubt about whether such goals were legal before this decision, then those doubts should be laid to rest.”

The amicus brief urges “that the Constitution be understood to protect—not to eviscerate—the capacity of universities thoughtfully to determine how to fulfill their profound responsibility” of educating a wide array of students. According to Penn Law School dean Michael Fitts, the signatories’ wish seems to have been granted. “We have always viewed diversity as a great strength of the Law School,” he says. “The Supreme Court opinion reaffirms the legality and propriety of what we’ve been doing” in carefully examining individual applications.

Arnold, of Penn’s Affirmative Action office, adds that the University’s admissions policies and practices already comply with the standards articulated by Justice O’Connor in Grutter and Justice William Rehnquist in Gratz. “They are individualized, considering academic credentials, schools attended, interests and activities, personal commitment and drive, and race, among other considerations.”

—Sarah Blackman C’03


2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 09/02/03

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