The Court and Affirmative Action


The U.S. Constitution does not prohibit the "narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body."
--- Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, United States Supreme Court

Photo by Tom A. Mike

On June 23 the U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings on two of the most closely watched cases in years --- cases that held importance not only for Ithaca College and higher education, but also for the whole of U.S. society. By a 5-4 majority, the court determined that the affirmative action admission policies used by the University of Michigan School of Law --- which give race some prominence --- were constitutional. At the same time the court ruled 6-3 that the university's undergraduate admission policies were unconstitutional because they used a point system that gives too much weight to an applicant's race.

The rulings essentially mean that race can be a factor for institutions shaping their admission programs, because a broad social value may be gained from diversity in the classroom. While they address directly only admission at public institutions, the decisions will have an impact on private colleges and universities, the business world, and government policies that are aimed at boosting minority enrollment, employment, and participation without violating the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

I am pleased that the Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action as one of the tools that may be used for increasing the numbers of students from historically underrepresented populations in higher education. Colleges and universities traditionally have enjoyed significant latitude in fulfilling their mission to provide high-quality education, and should be allowed to take into account racial and ethnic diversity as one factor among the many considered in admission decisions.

As embodied in our mission statement as well as our Institutional Plan, Ithaca College is committed to the notion of enhancing diversity among our students, faculty, and staff. The court rulings will allow us to continue our current admission policies, because we do not assign points or otherwise have different standards for prospects from different racial or ethnic categories.

We do act affirmatively in our admission outreach programs, by committing resources to identify ALANA (African, Latino/Latina, Asian, and Native American) students and to communicate to them through direct mail, school visits, institutional partnerships, alumni networking, and other focused activities. In addition to the work of professional staff in the Office of Admission, student volunteers known as Multicultural Ambassadors are a crucial component in this effort. These students give of their time to phone prospective students, host them for overnight visits, provide program support with visiting groups, and plan and deliver specialized programs.

We also act affirmatively in the "yield phase" of the admission process. Once an ALANA student has been accepted on the basis of his or her academic achievement and other standard admission factors, we make strong efforts to convince that student to attend Ithaca College. One way we do this is by providing financial assistance, committing a high level of institutional aid through such programs
as Ithaca Opportunity Grants and the Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar Program. We also invite selected potential students and their parents to visit the campus as part of a program called Inside Look.

Our efforts have proven effective in increasing our numbers of students from traditionally underrepresented groups. In five years applications from those populations have increased by 88 percent --- from 667 in 1998 to 1,252 in 2003. The number of such students enrolled in the freshman class has actually doubled, from 82 in 1998 to 165 expected for this fall.

I wholeheartedly concur with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion: "The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." We still have a ways to go, both here at Ithaca College and in all of higher education, in our endeavor to give everyone an equal opportunity for access to that education. The endorsement of affirmative action by the Supreme Court will help ensure that such progress will continue.

Peggy R. Williams
Peggy R. Williams          



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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 9 October, 2003