National spotlight turns to diversity

For the second time in four days, University President Henry Bienen emphasized Northwestern’s commitment to diversity during his introduction to Monday’s celebration honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“We believe that we’ve achieved a balance between the necessity of fair admissions and our institutional responsibility to pursue racial diversity,” Bienen said at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, echoing remarks he made at Friday’s MLK Day Vigil. “We will be committed to these principles, and we will argue forcibly for them in the spirit and beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Bienen’s comments on affirmative action came after President Bush condemned the University of Michigan’s race-based admission policies in a statement Jan. 15, saying the school “unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students, based solely on their race.”

Michigan’s undergraduate and law school policies are the focus of two cases — Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger — that the Supreme Court is scheduled to consider in February or March. Any decision, which likely would focus on public institutions such as Michigan, would probably have little direct bearing on NU.

Michigan awards undergraduate applicants points for various factors, including grade point average, SAT score, socio-economic background and race, on a 150-point scale, whereas the law school aims to achieve a “critical mass” of under-represented minority students.

The Bush administration filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs in both cases, contending Michigan’s policies amount to quotas that violate the precedent set in a 1978 Supreme Court ruling.

In a Jan. 17 meeting with The Daily, Bienen said he questioned the political and judicial correctness of Bush’s move but opposed rigid formulas for admission, adding: “We never have used quotas here. We don’t give points to anyone.”

Prof. Richard Iton, who has a joint appointment in the political science and African-American studies departments, said Bush’s argument relies heavily on the 1978 decision, in which the court ruled quotas unconstitutional but upheld a school’s right to consider race in admissions.

Bush appears to believe that any consideration of race constitutes a quota, said Law Prof. Andrew Koppelman, a constitutional law expert.

“It’s very confusing to use the word ‘quota’ to describe what’s going on in Michigan,” Koppelman said. “It seems to be the position that Bush thinks universities should never take race into consideration at all.”

NU’s Office of Undergraduate Admission considers race or ethnicity as only one of many factors in evaluating applicants, said Rebecca Dixon, associate provost for university enrollment. The university’s policy breaks down criteria into four areas: academics, initiative and participation, communication skills, and a fourth category that is more subjective.

Dixon said demand for qualified minority applicants always exceeds supply as a result of inequality in the nation’s public schools systems, but persistent recruitment efforts can compensate to a certain extent.

“The problem keeps going if we don’t try to encourage people who are capable to apply and attend here,” Dixon said.