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Educators praise court's affirmative action ruling

By Linda Lutton
Daily Southtown
Tuesday, June 24, 2003

University officials in Illinois praised the Supreme Court's landmark affirmation Monday of the use of race in college admissions to obtain a diverse student body.

And some of the state's largest public and private universities said the other aspect of the Supreme Court's decision — rejection of the University of Michigan's undergraduate point system — would not affect their own affirmative action programs.

"I think this is a huge victory for higher education, and it's a huge victory for America," said Nancy Cantor, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has had an affirmative action program in place since the late 1960s.

Cantor said race is considered as one factor among many in undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an approach similar to the one employed at the University of Michigan's law school.

"It's a very strong affirmation of our admissions policies and nationwide admissions policies," Cantor said.

Having a diverse student body is critical in an increasingly multicultural democracy, according to the chancellor. Universities are teaching students in that democracy "to learn to live and work together," she said. "That's why we care so much about this decision."

Last year, about 7 percent of the school's undergraduate students were black. Six percent were Hispanic.

Most universities tend to use policies like the one upheld Monday by the Supreme Court, in which schools look at each applicant and may consider race as a "plus factor," just as they might consider playing the trumpet or volunteering plus factors, said Geoffrey Stone, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, where admissions procedures are not expected to be affected.

"It's primarily the large public universities that use a formula like the one used by the University of Michigan's undergraduate school," said Stone.

In Stone's estimation, only a handful of universities nationwide use a point system like the one used by Michigan's undergraduate program. He called such systems "crude."

At the University of Illinois at Chicago, which is one of the nation's most diverse campuses, associate chancellor of public affairs Mark Rosati said Monday's Supreme Court decision will not change much.

"We will study the Michigan decisions, but we do not expect it to have a significant effect on the campus," Rosati said.

He attributes UIC's diverse student body — no one racial or ethnic group forms a majority on the campus — to a diverse applicant pool. Eighty percent of UIC undergraduates come from the Chicago metropolitan area. Sixteen percent are Hispanic; 9.5 percent are black.

"The computer basically makes (admissions) decisions based on test scores and class rank," Rosati said.

Private schools affected, too

While the Supreme Court's decision directly affected public universities, private universities were following the decision closely, as well.

Northwestern University spokesman Alan Cubbage said private universities are bound by the same nondiscrimination requirements as public universities, in part because their students receive federal financial aid dollars.

Northwestern pays part-time readers to review undergraduate applications, he said.

"We consider each applicant individually. That's a pretty labor-intensive process, but that's what we do."

Every application is read twice. Each reviewer recommends the applicant be admitted, denied or placed on the waiting list, Cubbage said. Between 5 percent and 6 percent of Northwestern's undergraduates are black; about the same percentage are Hispanic. "That's just how it falls out" after the admissions process is complete, Cubbage said.

Chicago Public Schools pleased

Observers had speculated the Supreme Court's decision could have an impact on race policies in elementary and secondary education. Many of the nation's 15,000 school districts use race in determining admissions to special programs or schools, particularly magnet schools. Dozens of educators and advocates for K-12 education expressed their opinions in court papers, most siding with the University of Michigan.

Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Joi Mecks said Chicago schools were pleased with the court's decision.

"We believe in affirmative action, and we are committed to diversity in our schools," said Mecks.

The Chicago Public Schools has been reviewing its compliance with a 1980 consent decree that mandates the district desegregate its schools. Had the court barred any use of race in admissions policies in higher education, that could have impacted Chicago's consent decree and district policy regarding race.

Southtown education writer Linda Lutton may be reached at llutton@dailysouthtown.com or (708) 633-5965.

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