January 16, 2003
Bush against U. of Mich. affirmative action
He contends plan is unconstitutional
By GEORGE E. CONDON JR. and FINLAY LEWIS
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – President Bush yesterday opposed as
"unconstitutional" and "flawed" a University of Michigan
affirmative action plan, injecting himself into the most
important Supreme Court case on race in a generation.
Bush's decision came after a battle inside his administration
pitting conservatives who wanted a strong statement opposing
all affirmative action against his political advisers who sought a
softer co mpromise that would not offend Hispanic voters.
In the end, the president sided with the conservatives, bringing
immediate criticism from Democrats and civil-rights leaders.
"Coming on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., this is a sad,
sad gift and a poor way to honor his memory," said Julian Bond,
chairman of the NAACP. Bond complained that Bush's use of the
word quota "with all its overtones of supposed preferences to
allegedly unqualified persons, is an attempt to disguise his
failure to support justice."
While under no legal obligation to take a stand in the two
Michigan cases before the Supreme Court, the president said his
administration would file a brief today urging that the
admissions policies at the University of Michigan be declared
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial
diversity in higher education," Bush said. "But the method used
by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is
"At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system
that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based
solely on their race," said the president.
The two cases – Grutter vs. Bollinger and Gratz vs. Bollinger –
were filed by students denied admission to either the University
of Michigan Law School and its College of Literature, Science and
In the wake of the Supreme Court's landmark 1978 decision in
University of California vs. Bakke, which was the last time the
court addressed affirmative action, the university adopted a
points-based admission system that it believed met the Bakke
standard by avoiding quotas but using race as a factor in its
Lee Bollinger, who was the president of the University of
Michigan when the litigation began, said last night that the
president was incorrect in his characterization of the programs.
Bollinger, who is now the president of Columbia University, said
Bush "is simply incorrect. These are not quotas." He said Bush
was using that label "to try and isolate a program and make it
seem exceptional but the fact of the matter is that Michigan's
program is virtually the same as those of selective universities
across the country."
But the president came down firmly on the side of those who
don't want race to be a factor in the admissions process, putting
him in the camp of conservatives who hope the Michigan ruling
will overturn Bakke.
In his announcement yesterday, Bush specifically attacked the
points system used by the university's undergraduate school,
noting that being an African-American, Hispanic or Native
American was worth 20 points toward admission out of a
"To put this in perspective," he said, "a perfect SAT score is worth
only 12 points in the Michigan system. Students who accumulate
100 points are generally admitted, so those 20 points awarded
solely based on race are often the decisive factor."
He also attacked the system used in the law school, which has
percentage targets for enrollment.
"This means that students are being selected or rejected based
primarily on the color of their skin," Bush said. "The motivation
for such an admissions policy may be very good, but its result is
discrimination and that discrimination is wrong."
The political fallout from the president's stand will not be clear
until Republicans can determine how it plays in the Latino
community. But it certainly did little to heal the wounds opened
last month by comments made by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., that
were criticized as racially insensitive.
When Lott drew a stern presidential rebuke, there had been
speculation that the GOP would make special efforts to mend its
political standing in the eyes of minority voters and interest
However, a senior administration official who was part of a core
group of White House aides advising the president said last night
that the Lott situation did not figure in any of the discussions in
which the official was involved.
The official also said the administration's brief would not address
the holding in the Bakke case that allows race to figure as a factor
in an admissions decision so long as the process avoids the use
Other key staff members who joined the discussions included
White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, Chief of Staff Andrew
Card, senior political adviser Karl Rove and – in a highly unusual
move – National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
"There was broad, uniform consensus among the advisers as to
the direction that he was going," the official said.
"This was not a decision in which politics intruded because,
frankly, I think it's fair to say there may be people from the left
and people from the right who may criticize it."
Some Republican strategists argue that Bush needs to increase
his support among Hispanic and other minority voters in order
to assure a second term and that the problem may now be more
urgent in the wake of the furor around the Lott affair.
But other experts pointed out last night that Bush has broken
new ground with African-Americans by his appointments of Rice
and Colin Powell as secretary of state. They also note that Bush
may yet have an opportunity to make the first appointment of a
Hispanic to the United States Supreme Court before having to
face the voters.
But Democrats saw an opportunity to remind voters of past
Republican stumbles on race.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who is seeking his party's
nomination, said the president "sided with the right wing of his
party and sent a signal that equal opportunity in higher
education is a low priority for his administration."
The decision also disappointed four moderate Republican
senators – Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Lincoln Chafee of
Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine –
who had warned the president in a letter that "this could do
significant harm to our system of higher education."
The Michigan decision won't affect the admissions policies
followed by state schools in California. They have been
forbidden to use affirmative action in any form since voters
passed Proposition 209 in 1996.