Judicial Notebook

In its landmark 1978 decision, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court declared the use of racial quotas in university admissions impermissible, but upheld the use of race as a factor in such admissions (438 U.S. 265). As a basis for his decision, Justice Powell found that attainment of a diverse student body is "clearly a constitutionally permissible goal for an institution of higher education." Now, almost a quarter of a century later, the consideration of race in university admissions has inspired a series of lawsuits brought by nonminority applicants who assert that their race prevented them from gaining admission to the state school of their choice. In addition to prompting a re-examination of Bakke, these cases have also defined a role for empirical research in judicial decision-making.

This month, the Sixth Circuit will hear arguments on two cases involving admissions processes at the University of Michigan.

Case background

In Gratz v. Bollinger, the plaintiffs challenged the university's undergraduate admissions policy, which uses a point system and allots additional points to applicants for a variety of factors including membership in a minority group. A similar challenge was brought against the University of Michigan Law School's admissions policy in Grutter v. Bollinger. One objective of the law school policy is to enroll a "critical mass" of minority students in the entering class.

In both cases, the university argued that the attainment of a diverse student body is a compelling state interest and that their admissions processes are appropriate means for attaining that interest.

The university presented the testimony of social scientists to support its position. Psychologist Patricia Gurin, PhD, presented her research examining the beneficial effects of diversity on "learning outcomes," such as engagement in active and sophisticated thinking and on "democracy outcomes," such as participation in citizenship activities, acknowledging the value of differences and post-college integration.

To address the notion that standardized tests are racially blind, psychologist Claude Steele, PhD, presented his research on stereotype threat and its influence on the performance of minorities on standardized tests.

In Gratz, the court found the social science evidence to be highly convincing. In holding the university's current undergraduate admissions policy constitutional (although striking down a previous policy), Judge Duggan found that the university presented "solid evidence regarding the educational benefits that flow from a racially and ethnically diverse student body" and that this evidence was sufficient to support a finding that such benefits constitute a compelling interest.

However, just a few months later in Grutter, another district court judge found that educational diversity is not a compelling state interest and even if it were, the law school's policy was not narrowly tailored to support that objective. Judge Friedman accepted that diversity is beneficial for education, but relied heavily on the testimony of expert statisticians who found that membership in a minority group was a "tremendous advantage" and that the probability that a minority applicant would be offered admission far outweighed that of a nonminority applicant with similar numbers.

Implications for psychologists' research

The problem of determining the extent to which race should be considered for university admissions is hardly unique to the Sixth Circuit. The Fifth Circuit has found that educational diversity is not a compelling state interest (Hopwood v. Texas), while the Ninth Circuit recently found that it was (Smith v. University of Washington, Law School). In August, the Eleventh Circuit left open the question of whether educational diversity was a compelling state interest, finding instead that the University of Georgia's admissions policy was not narrowly tailored to serve such an interest (Johnson v. Board of Regents).

The Supreme Court has declined to hear Hopwood and Smith, but in light of the growing number of cases in the lower courts and the discrepancies across circuits, it seems likely that the Court will be called upon to clarify the extent to which the use of racial preferences in higher education admissions is constitutional. If the Michigan cases are any indication, empirical psychological research will play an integral role in this process.