Race in University of Michigan Admissions
Carl Cohen, Professor of Philosophy
The University Record, February 25, 1997

The role of race in University admissions deserves our thoughtful reconsideration. We all want an admissions system that opens access equally to all, one that yields entering classes with a wide variety of talents and interests while remaining truly fair. These objectives do not require --- nor does law or morality permit --- the outright preferences we now give on the basis of race, or other ethnic categories for which race may here serve as shorthand.

I preface this critique with a personal note: There is no institution in the world, save only my family and my country, that I love more than the University of Michigan, to which I have devoted more than 40 years of my adult life. I have been honored to serve as chairman of our Academic Senate, and as chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. But when this University, of which we are so proud, engages in deliberate discriminatory practices that it seeks to hide and then disguise, we on the faculty are right to be appalled. The motives behind such conduct may be honorable, but worthy aims cannot justify racially discriminatory devices. Racial discrimination is wrong; it always was and it always will be wrong. We are not permitted to dabble in it. Moreover, advantages given to persons of some races but not others do great damage --- to the University as a whole, but especially to those who were supposed to have been helped. In this sphere our proper "goal" is the complete elimination of all preferences by race; the proper "timetable" for the achievement of this goal is now.

Intellectual diversity --- the variety of opinions and perspectives that enrich and invigorate university life --- was recognized (in Regents v. Bakke in 1978) as an important aim. Using skin color as a proxy for intellectual diversity is morally problematic, relying as it does upon stereotypes --- but in any case the intention to use race as a proxy for potential contributions certainly cannot excuse deliberate discrimination by race. Spokespersons for our University, seeking the protection of the Bakke decision by echoing its words, repeatedly say that "we consider race among many other factors." This is true but highly deceptive. We use race in admissions as no other non-intellectual criteria are used. All applicants are classified by race first; we count applicants and acceptances by race at every turn; we establish "affirmative action goals" that can be satisfied only by racial numbers. Our admissions systems are, in sum, thoroughly saturated by racially preferential devices.

Justice Powell made it very clear in Bakke that an admissions system whose focus upon "diversity" amounts mainly to adjusting the racial proportions of its classes misconceives the diversity of which he was writing. He, the author of the defense of diversity upon which reliance is so commonly placed, declares unequivocally that race-based systems devised to advance racial proportionality are constitutionally invalid on their face.

The continuing unabashed use of ethnic preferences to achieve a higher proportion of one race or another --- success measured by percentage numbers carried to decimals --- is a flagrant violation of the principles laid down in the law of the land; readers who doubt this will receive a copy of the Bakke opinion from me upon request.

In that opinion, Justice Powell rejects the effort to defend the pursuit of racial percentages so long as "goals" but not "quotas" are employed. "This semantic distinction," he writes, "is beside the point." The point, Powell emphasizes in Bakke, is that any admissions device is discriminatory "whether described as a quota or a goal" if it uses "a line drawn on the basis of race and ethnic status." That is the fatal flaw of racial preference, the deliberate use of racial categories for disparate treatment. Moral principles condemn it; and as the Supreme Court of the United States has made perfectly clear, our Constitution and our laws forbid it.

Do we, at this University, draw such racial lines? Do we knowingly discriminate by race? Most certainly we do. The preferences we confer are not merely "plus factors" giving marginal benefit to minority applicants otherwise equal or nearly equal; they are major and systematic discriminatory devices designed to give very substantial advantages to applicants from some racial groups. University of Michigan records obtained using the Freedom of Information Act reveal that what is going on beneath euphemisms and obfuscation is, in a word, shocking. Some illustrations will exhibit the racial mischief we do:

First, the formal, written policies of our admissions system are explicitly discriminatory. In a document headed "Guidelines for All Terms of 1996," prepared by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and marked "Confidential --- Internal Use Only," the responses to be given to applicants on first review are set forth in a grid, whose vertical axis is formed by the several categories of GPAs, and horizontal axis by the several categories of SAT (or ACT) scores. Every applicant falls into one of 90 resultant cells. Within each cell appear instructions regarding the letter of response counselors are directed to send to the applicant; but different instructions appear on two (or three) different lines within each cell, and at the top of the sheet appears this directive: "In General [sic] use the top row in each cell for majority applicants and the middle and bottom rows for underrepresented minorities."[emphasis added] Elsewhere in the document we learn that the phrase "underrepresented minorities" refers, in this document, to "American Indians, Black/African American[s], and Hispanic/Latino American[s]."

How sharply these different responses discriminate by race may be seen from the following two examples among many:

1) Non-minority applicants with GPAs between 3.2-3.3 (B+) and with SAT scores of 1010-1080 (or ACT scores of 22-23) receive on first review the coded classification "R-TST" which results in a response letter coded R, for Reject. Minority applicants with precisely the same academic scores and credentials receive the coded classification A . . ACSP, which results in a response letter coded A, signifying Admit. Is this, or is it not, outright discrimination by race?

2) Non-minority applicants to the highly prized Premedical-Medical Program, INTEFLEX, are classified on first review A-INT (Admit) only if they have a GPA of 3.8 (out-of state) or 3.6 (in-state) and SAT scores of 1320+ or ACT scores of 30+. Minority applicants to the same INTEFLEX program are classified A-INT with GPA of 3.4 (in-state or out-of-state) and SAT scores of 1170+ or ACT scores of 26+. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 expressly forbids discrimination against any person in the United States "on the ground of race, color, or national origin . . . under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." Do these explicitly different admissions standards by race show, or do they not show, that we are violating that law?

Second, in actual decision-making as well as in formal policy we discriminate by race. This is proved beyond cavil by the numerical results of our admissions process, revealed in official documents from our Law School and Medical School, as well as from Undergraduate Admissions. Reports, again in the form of grids, show for each cell marked off by GPA (vertical axis) and test scores (horizontal axis) how many applicants there were in that cell, and of these how many were offered admission. So the percentage rate of admission for any cell may be readily determined. But separate grids are prepared for Blacks, and for whites, and for those of other ethnic groups, so the rate of admission for any cell or cells may also be calculated by race. Two illustrations of the racial disparities in admission rates disclosed will betoken the scale of our discriminatory practices:

1) A total of 526 applicants for undergraduate admission (according to the data provided for 1994) had GPAs between 2.80-2.99 (B-), and SAT scores of 1100-1390 (or ACT scores of 27-32). Of these, 48 were minorities and 478 were non-minorities. Of the non-minorities in this category, 12% (56) were offered admission. Of the minority applicants in this category, 100% (48) were offered admission. Similar disparities abound. Is this or is it not compelling evidence of discrimination by race?

2) Law School applicants with GPA between 3.25 and 3.49 (B+), and Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) scores between 156 and 163 (good but not outstanding), were very numerous in 1995. Of the 238 "Caucasian Americans%quot; in that category only 7 were offered admission, 3%. Of the 17 African American applicants in that category 17 were offered admissions, 100%. Similar disparities abound here too. Is this not ineluctable evidence of racial discrimination practiced by an institution receving Federal financial assistance?

Apparently anomalous admissions are often defended as no more than the result of attending to the merits and special talents of individual applicants. Reasonable people will agree that scores and averages are not the only things that ought to count, and that admissions need not be based entirely upon numerical credentials to be fair. But non-quantitative merits of character and talent are exhibited by individual applicants from every ethnic group; if considered for applicants of one color, fairness requires that they be considered for applicants of every color. The weighing of such individual characteristics, therefore, cannot possibly explain the patterns of racial discrimination that pervade our admissions systems.

If the quest for intellectual diversity cannot justify our racially discriminatory practices, might they be justified as compensation for injuries earlier done? No. A remedy for injury may be given justly only to those who have suffered that injury, not to other persons whose skin is of the same color. Wrongs done to some Blacks (and other minorities) cannot be redressed by giving favor to other Blacks, any more than wrongs done by some whites may be punished by penalizing other whites. Rights are possessed by persons, not by skin color groups. Where a remedy is due, it is due to the person damaged, not the group to which that person belongs.

Moreover, whether some person has in fact been injured in a way that justifies a racial remedy is a matter that does not lie in the competence of the University or its admissions officers to determine. And if some competent court were ever to find that unlawful racial injuries had been inflicted by our University, the authority to fix a compensatory remedy certainly would not rest in our hands. But of course the admission preferences we give were never designed to give remedy; they were designed to achieve racial proportionality.

Racial discrimination having this objective is morally indefensible. It will come to an end before long because most citizens of Michigan, when they learn what we are doing, will not tolerate it. The contrast between our public profession of "commitment to a policy of nondiscrimination," and our knowing but hidden practice of such discrimination, will provoke resentment and hostility gravely damaging to us. If we continue to engage in discriminatory practices, and to seek to deceive the public about them, we will not deserve to be excused.


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