John Leo
Race can legally be a "plus" or a "tipping" factor in close calls on college admissions. That was Justice Lewis Powell's opinion in the Supreme Court's famous 1978 Bakke decision. The universities did not comply with that wording. Instead, they opted for broad and dishonest preference schemes designed to admit large numbers of non-Asian minorities, no matter what the courts said, and no matter how underqualified minority applicants happened to be.

The University of Michigan set up a preference system so clearly illegal that it was jettisoned soon after one campus professor, Carl Cohen, forced it out into the open through a Freedom of Information request. In its place the university installed another odious system that gives 20-point bonuses on undergraduate admissions to all non-Asian minority applicants. Under this system, not being white or Asian is a far better qualification than a perfect SAT score, which counts for only 12 points.

This plan, rightly denounced by President Bush last week as unfair, is a good bet to be struck down by the Supreme Court this term as a quota system in disguise.

In a separate case, the court will also rule on preferences at the University of Michigan law school. The thumb on the scale at the law school is a heavy one. Race is worth more than one GPA point or at least an 11-point and 20-percentile boost on the LSAT. The result is that three of every four non-Asian minorities who get accepted would have been rejected if white or Asian.

Because preferences this large are hard to defend, the colleges paddled over to a relatively new "diversity" defense -- the argument that a truly diverse student body (i.e., one heavily dependent on preferences) crucially benefits whites and Asians. Along with this strained argument, the universities have contended that a "critical mass" of underrepresented minorities is necessary so that blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans will speak out in class without fearing that their comments will be taken as representing their entire racial or ethnic group.

But "critical mass" sounds very much like "quota," and it is not clear under the argument why students who are Welsh, Basque, Mormon or Baptist shouldn't get their own "critical mass" on campus too. (Nor is it clear in the first place why students who are Laotian or Polish immigrants are not eligible for preferences, but anyone with a Spanish surname is.)

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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