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Equal Access and Consideration

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Equal Access and Consideration

Equal Access and Consideration:

The Level Playing Field of College Admission

An educated public body is essential to the health and well-being of a democratic society. The Founding Fathers of the United States understood this all too well and acted upon that belief. For example, in 1749 Benjamin Franklin proposed the creation of a public school in Philadelphia, designed to prepare people to make meaningful contributions to the whole of society. Also, Thomas Jefferson recognized the role of education and understood the need for diversity by devising an elective curriculum while creating the University of Virginia. Today, university administrators embrace the idea of diversity and many institutions have expanded its scope beyond curriculum offerings to include the consideration of race in the admission process. Challenges to the constitutionality, specifically the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, of this practice have been argued before the Supreme Court. In 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the legitimacy of race-based university admission policies in its Grutter v. Bollinger decision.

The Court held that the university’s narrow use of race in the admission process to advance a compelling state interest (the benefits of a diverse student body) is not prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The lynchpin of the court’s holding is obviously that a diverse student body is indeed a compelling state interest. This is by far the Court's most important determination because it allows state-sponsored institutions across the country to lawfully consider race in admissions. Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, writing the majority opinion, points out that the admission policy in question uses race only as a single factor in the entire process, and that it is used in an individualized manner. Furthermore, the policy does not define diversity solely on race or ethnic background although it does articulate a commitment to the inclusion of students from groups which have been historically discriminated against and are less likely to gain admission unless their unique experiences are considered. Justice O’Conner references a recent holding by the Court, “All racial classifications, imposed by whatever federal, state, or local government actor, must be analyzed by a reviewing court under a standard of strict scrutiny” (Adarand). It is then incumbent upon the reviewing court, she continues, to determine the validity, from a constitutional perspective, of the classifications imposed. The majority held that as long as the racial classifications in question are “narrowly-tailored” as well, they do not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

In his dissenting opinion of the Grutter majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas communicates the demeaning nature of race related classifications. He contends that engaging in racial discrimination in the name of affirmative action is not a permissible solution to the dearth of opportunity afforded certain minorities. He contends that on its face, any benefit derived from racial discrimination is not worth the cost. He points out that there are race-neutral alternatives in admissions that the university did not show a willingness to explore and that the use of the standards for admission currently employed by the university directly created the need to employ the race-related admission policy in question. In fact, Justice Thomas questions the exact nature of the compelling state interest the university seeks to protect and enhance, the costs associated with that interest, and whether or not that interest is indeed at all compelling to the state. He views the use of the race-based admissions policy as nothing more than an implement wielded by the university to maintain its current elite and selective status; and concludes that the use of race-based admission policies are clearly not in line with the spirit or intent of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The arguments advanced by both Justice O’Conner and Justice Thomas clearly illustrate and echo the divisive and highly charged atmosphere that surrounds the debate over affirmative action policies as they are applied to university admissions. Each presents points and evidence that are manifestations of the evolution of Executive Order 10925, issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. That order, directed federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure […] that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin” (Kennedy Sec. 301). It is this language that was ultimately applied to university admissions policies. Above all, the opinions written by Justices O’Connor and Thomas bespeak

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