The Great Debate III: The Michigan cases, Minority “Critical Mass”, and Student Body Diversity


Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases
The most recent defining cases in race-conscious admission policies are Grutter vs. Bollinger and Gratz vs. Bollinger. In Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003), University of Michigan’s admission policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because its ranking system gave an automatic point increase to all racial minorities rather than making individual determinations. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the Court, ruled the University’s point system’s “predetermined point allocations” that awarded 20 points to underrepresented minorities “ensures that the diversity contributions of applicants cannot be individually assessed” and was therefore unconstitutional.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the court ruled that the University of Michigan Law School had a compelling interest in promoting class diversity and that its “plus” system did not amount to a quota system that would have been unconstitutional under Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Therefore, the University of Michigan Law School admissions program that gave special consideration for being a certain racial minority did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court endorses Justice Powell’s opinion in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify using race in university admissions. The Court defers to the Law School’s educational judgment that diversity is essential to its educational mission. The Court’s scrutiny of that interest is no less strict for taking into account complex educational judgments in an area that lies primarily within the university’s expertise.

Attaining a diverse student body is at the heart of the Law School’s proper institutional mission, and its “good faith” is “presumed” absent “a showing to the contrary.” Enrolling a “critical mass” of minority students simply to assure some specified percentage of a particular group merely because of its race or ethnic origin would be patently unconstitutional. But the Law School defines its critical mass concept by reference to the substantial, important, and laudable educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce, including cross-racial understanding and the breaking down of racial stereotypes. The Law School’s claim is further bolstered by numerous expert studies and reports showing that such diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society, and for the legal profession. Major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints (Ancheta and Edley, 2004). High-ranking retired officers and civilian military leaders assert that a highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps is essential to national security (Ancheta and Edley, 2004). Moreover, because universities, represent the training ground for a large number of the nation’s leaders, the path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. Thus, the Law School has a compelling interest in attaining a diverse student body.

The Law School’s admissions program bears the hallmarks of a narrowly tailored plan. To be narrowly tailored, a race-conscious admissions program cannot “insulat[e] each category of applicants with certain desired qualifications from competition with all other applicants.” (Bakke, Supra.). Instead, it may consider race or ethnicity only as a “ ‘plus’ in a particular applicant’s file”; i.e., it must be “flexible enough to consider all pertinent elements of diversity in light of the particular qualifications of each applicant, and to place them on the same footing for consideration, although not necessarily according them the same weight,” (Bakke, Supra). It follows that universities cannot establish quotas for members of certain racial or ethnic groups or put them on separate admissions tracks. The Law School’s admissions program, like the Harvard plan approved by Justice Powell’s opinion satisfies these requirements. Moreover, the program is flexible enough to ensure that each applicant is evaluated as an individual and not in a way that makes race or ethnicity the defining feature of the application. (Bakke, supra). The Law School engages in a highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file, giving serious consideration to all the ways an applicant might contribute to a diverse educational environment. There is no policy, either de jure or de facto, of automatic acceptance or rejection based on any single “soft” variable. Also, the program adequately ensures that all factors that may contribute to diversity are meaningfully considered alongside race. Moreover, the Law School frequently accepts nonminority applicants with grades and test scores lower than underrepresented minority applicants (and other nonminority applicants) who are rejected.

Student Body Diversity
Expert reports by researchers such as Patricia Gurin, Gary Orfield, Derek Bok, David Chambers, etc. document the educational benefits of student body diversity is substantial and a compelling governmental interest without the use of quotas. In short, “Student body diversity can promote learning outcomes, democratic values and civic engagement, and preparation for a diverse society and workforce – goals that fall squarely within the basic mission of most universities (Gurin, 2001, pg. 10).” Gurin (2001) analyzed three sources for her report: national data collected from over 9300 students at 200 colleges and universities; the Michigan Student Study containing survey data collected from 1300 undergraduate University of Michigan students; and data drawn from a study in the Intergroup Relations, Community, and Conflict class at the University of Michigan. Gurin (2001) reported significant and consistent results across all three data sets. Gurin (2001) concludes that “students who experienced the most racial and ethnic diversity in classroom settings and in informal interactions with peers showed the greatest engagement in active thinking processes, growth in intellectual engagement and motivation, and growth in intellectual and academic skills (pg. 12).”

Gurin (2001) states more specifically that “structural diversity” – the racial and ethnic composition of the student body – leads to institutional transformations that provide the opportunity for “classroom diversity” – the incorporation of knowledge about diverse groups into the curriculum (including ethnic studies courses) – as well as “informal interactional diversity” – the opportunity to interact with students from diverse backgrounds in the broad, campus environment. These diversity experiences are in turn linked to several positive learning and democracy outcomes.
Gurin was able to conduct qualitative research with undergraduate students. She found that students who interacted with students from diverse backgrounds had an increased sense of community and shared interest with other racial/ethnic groups. Other findings show that students who are able to experience diversity are also more likely to be involved and engage in experiential learning such as extracurricular activities, community service, study abroad, etc. This is important because the mission of most universities is to help students become active global citizens in a pluralistic and cosmopolitan society. These traits are also important in the job market as students reported that the diversity they were able to experience helped them adjust to study abroad, internships, and/or research assistantships.

Also Gundemann (2001) emphasizes the importance of “critical mass,” “The need for students to feel safe and comfortable and serves as a counter to the lack of safety or comfort felt when one finds oneself a ‘solo’ or minority of one’(pg. 268).” Critical mass implies that, “enough students to overcome the silencing effect of being isolated in the classroom by ethnicity, race, gender, [etc.]. Enough students to provide safety for expressing views (Gundemann, 2001, pg. 268). The understanding of “critical mass” in State University’s race-conscious admission policy recognizes the harms that accrue from having only token numbers of minority students within its student body. Many researchers have found the dangers of tokenism as racial isolation, alienation, and stereotyping. Therefore, the university strives to admit enough students to represent varied viewpoints and perspectives within underrepresented groups. As stated in Ancheta and Edley’s Grutter Amicus Brief (2004), “Critical mass promotes the notion of intra-group diversity, which undermines the stereotype that all students within a group have identical experiences and possess identical viewpoints (pg. 25).” Ancheta and Edley (2004) continues, “The dangers of tokenism are especially apparent when one considers the actual number of students enrolled, rather than the percentages (pg. 29).”

In Ancheta and Edley’s Grutter Amicus Brief (2004) states, “Under Gurin’s statistical model there should be “interaction” between structural diversity and diversity experience variables (pg. 11).” In other words, Gurin is trying to show that diversity experience variables are more effective at higher levels of minority enrollment. Ancheta and Edley (2004) continue that, “Structural diversity affects the number of students who will have the diverse experiences and gain educational benefits, not the magnitude of the effects. The effects of diversity on hundreds of thousands of students in higher education can, over time, be substantial (pg. 10).”

Universities bears the burden of showing a “strong basis in evidence” to support its claim that promoting educational diversity is a compelling governmental interest. The Gurin report from the Michigan Gratz and Grutter cases supports the compelling interest in promoting educational diversity and, more importantly, the report is useful and reliable evidence documenting the positive effects of educational diversity. Since state government may serve as the trustees of some state universities then the mission of the school must serve the interests of the state and nation. Therefore, university officials feel that the university’s population should reflect the nation’s especially in racial/ethnic makeup.


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