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Published: Sunday, 4/1/2001

For the greater good

The University of Michigan, which has pursued a tenacious and admirable policy over the years of diversifying itself, has been hit with a contradictory court decision in the second of two lawsuits that question its use of race as a factor in admitting students.

This time, a federal judge in Detroit has ruled that the UM law school's admission standards are unconstitutional because they are not “race neutral.” In December, another federal judge, also from Detroit, upheld the legality of university's undergraduate admission rules against a similar claim of reverse discrimination by an unsuccessful white applicant.

Conservative groups are pushing these lawsuits in hopes of getting a ruling against affirmative action and diversity from the U.S. Supreme Court, which is where the UM cases obviously are headed. The court now leans further to the political right than it did in 1978, when it ruled in the Bakke case, which remains the law of the land.

In Bakke, the court correctly outlawed outright racial quotas in ordering a state medical school in California to admit a white applicant with higher test scores than some minority candidates. But the court retained a kind of constitutional safety net for affirmative action by ruling that colleges and universities could make race a factor - though not the only factor - in attempting to create a diverse educational environment.

Judge Bernard Friedman, in his decision in the UM law school case, rejected that 23-year-old view, declaring that “using race to assemble a racially diverse student population is not a compelling state interest.”

UM officials hold the opposite opinion, and they are correct. Lee Bollinger, university president, asserted that “pursuing educational excellence through diversity is a compelling governmental interest. We must not abandon the course at this stage of our nation's history.”

Census figures released recently show a nation becoming more racially diverse, with greater numbers of blacks and Hispanics. Backing off on affirmative action policies would ensure that UM and other prestigious educational institutions, which train the nation's leadership elite, become less reflective of the country as a whole.

To give up on the policy of broadly based college enrollment is to give up on the melting pot experience of the past century that has made this nation strong and unique. And that would be a step backward.

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