The split decision by the United States Supreme Court in favor of race-conscious admission policies at colleges and universities may constitute a victory for affirmative action, but it could be short-lived.
Perhaps a larger societal interest still requires that a few must be discriminated against for the benefit of the many, but it is also to be hoped that the court's partial affirmation of admission policies at the University of Michigan marks the beginning of the end for discrimination based on race.
The day is coming, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the court's 5-4 majority opinion upholding the UM law school's admission standards, when racial preferences no longer will be needed. We hope she's right.
In the short term, UM will have to craft a new application process for undergraduates - the old one was struck down in a separate 6-3 decision - to match that used at the law school, which the court hailed as “a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant's file.”
At the same time, talk in Washington of one or more retirements from the high court means that this week's “victory” for affirmative action may fall for another reason.
The shaky 5-4 majority makes clear that the court is only one new justice away from overturning a 40-year-old drive for a more egalitarian society.
In addition, there is a great reservoir of resentment out there, principally among America's angry white men, that new victims are created by attempts to right past grievances of others.
Conservatives are particularly galled that Justice O'Connor, an appointee of Ronald Reagan, led the prevailing majority. She is among the older court members said to be considering retirement, along with a fellow conservative, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and a liberal, Justice John Stevens.
Nonetheless, the court has given a deserved boost to the notion that diversity is one of the bonds that holds society together, just as a less-conservative court did 25 years ago.
“In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity,” noted Justice O'Connor.
Following the court's decisions, which included striking down the 20-point advantage UM has given minority undergraduate applicants, President Bush praised the court “for recognizing the value of diversity on our nation's campuses.” The President's statement was odd, considering that the administration opposed UM in both cases.
The Supreme Court action means college officials around the country probably will not have to make big changes in admission policies, most of which already are geared to giving at least limited preference to minorities to produce a diverse campus atmosphere.
Big business and the military, recognizing the value of an educated, racially integrated leadership, supported UM in the case.
The court's previous stand in favor of affirmative action on campus came in 1978 in Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke. The court ruled then that race could be one factor in college admissions as long as a fixed number of openings was not reserved for minorities.
UM, in contrast, does not use such a quota system either in its undergraduate college or law school. Instead it relies on achieving what university officials term a “critical mass” of minorities necessary for a diverse student body.
Presumably, the university's main burden under Monday's rulings will be to hire a larger squad of admissions officers to give undergraduate applicants the same scrutiny the law school provides.
In the meantime, UM President Mary Sue Coleman calls the court action “a great day for higher education.” Whether it is a lasting victory is another matter.