343. "Are white students hurt by others who look 'just like them'?" USA Today (February 6, 2001), page 13A.
Today, a federal court will begin hearing a case that may ultimately determine whether qualified white students can be denied college admission so other whites will enjoy a "diverse educational environment."
The case was brought against the University of Michigan Law School by a white student who was denied admission despite having higher test scores than some African-American and Hispanic students who were admitted. It is being closely watched because many universities use race as a criterion for admissions.
The law school acknowledges admitting minority students with lower scores. But it argues that test scores aren't the only factor in admission. Grades, resumes, personal experience and letters of recommendation all count. And the university says it has done nothing to violate the U.S. Supreme Court's 1978 Bakke ruling, which outlawed racial quotas but allowed consideration of race in admissions.
Fine, but instead of basing its case on the social justice of using race and ethnicity among its admissions considerations, the University of Michigan thinks it has a much savvier political argument: that it is doing a favor to white students by ensuring that their educational environment includes large numbers of minority students. (Obviously, minority students hardly need other minority students to experience diversity; it's the non-Hispanic white and Asian-American students who are said to come up short without it.)
The school's representatives could hardly constrain their self-satisfaction as they recently shared their thoughts with 60 Minutes. President Lee Bollinger stated, "The basic idea is that students learn better when they're in an environment in which not everyone is just like them." Deputy general counsel Liz Barry elaborated, "Race matters in our admissions process. It matters because we know when we bring together a diverse student body, we get educational benefits."
Other universities, from the University of Maryland to the University of California, Berkeley, have also made similar arguments.
While a strong case can be made for correcting for past and current injustices, this relatively new argument raises some very serious doubts. For starters, it assumes that it is ethically appropriate to deny some fully qualified students admission in order to admit others to create a somewhat enriched environment.
You may say, "Well, these white students can go to some other law school." But if the court lets this approach stand, there are strong indications that other top universities would follow suit. You may argue that Michigan et al. cannot admit everyone. True, but I am not quarreling with rejecting less-qualified students. What I oppose is sacrificing fully qualified students.
Michigan's argument does not pass the smile test: It is not something you can say with a straight face. True, diversity does add something to an educational environment; however, it comes in many stripes. Couldn't the same argument be made that the freshmen of our elite universities would benefit by having more poor whites from Appalachia, or more diehard Christian youngsters, or maybe a few more students from Muslim nations among them? And should we make special allowances for these students at the expense of other minorities?
Arguably the weakest argument for Michigan's case is offered by Law School Dean Jeffrey Lehman. He maintains, "When we teach our students about difficult issues such as whether it's appropriate for police to be able to use race profiles -- when we ask our students whether it's appropriate to decriminalize crack cocaine, the discussion, the analysis, the learning that takes place is better in a racially diverse classroom."
The implication is that a white person cannot make a powerful case against racial profiling -- or a black student for it. If this argument is upheld, the law school would need gay students for a discussion of civil unions, mental patients to examine involuntary-commitment laws, and so on -- a truly nutty idea. The fact is, some of the most vociferous and articulate voices for social justice are lily white and even come from people who have not yet had the benefit of law-school-acquired sophistry.
Michigan and company would do best if they stuck to "old" arguments. Some social groups suffered -- and are still suffering -- from gross injustices.
Given that colleges provide points for other so-called non-meritorious considerations (Michigan gives four points to an undergraduate applicant whose parents attended the school, and 20 points for athletes), it seems Michigan could easily rest its case on granting similar or larger numbers of points to correct injustice. Given that race and ethnicity in such a scoring system are not the determining factors, the court may well let this kind of scoring stand.
After all, there are educational gains for both the students and the rest of us if arguments that are advanced are candid and compelling.
Amitai Etzioni is the author of the new book Next: The Road to the Good Society and is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.