One way U of M could use racial preferences in admissions

Apr 23, 2014

As pretty much everyone knows by now, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on the use of affirmative action in college admissions. This was no real surprise.

Today, lots of people are praising or attacking this decision. But it is clear to me that many of them haven’t read it, or even read much about it. And the high court’s ruling raises two very interesting questions on subjects other than affirmative action.

First of all, it is important to understand that the court did not say affirmative action couldn’t be used in college admissions. Not at all.

In fact, in his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said “the consideration of race in admissions is permissible.” But Michigan voters eight years ago chose to ban the use of race in college admissions. Justice Kennedy wrote that the court found they were within their rights to “choose to prohibit the consideration of racial preferences in governmental decisions, in particular with respect to school admissions.”

However, Kennedy also said that voters could decide that “race-based preferences could be adopted.”  

Essentially, the high court is saying that this can be decided by the voters.

Now, don’t expect there to be any rush to stick something on the ballot to reinstate affirmative action in admissions choices.

Everything I know indicates that the vast majority of white voters still hate that idea.

But here’s the real question. Sooner or later, these nine justices are going to get around to ruling on Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriages, the one that was overturned by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman last month.

If you follow the logic of the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, it might indicate that they will also say that states have the power to ban same-sex marriages as well.

Possibly not. You could argue, and attorneys for those seeking legal same-sex marriages will argue, that marriage is a universal human right, unlike the right to attend a university.

But you can bet that state Attorney General Bill Schuette will argue that here, too, the voters should reign supreme.

We simply have to wait and see.

However, back to affirmative action. There is one conceivable way in which the U of M could once again use racial preferences in admissions: Leave the state system and become a private university.

University officials say they have no plans to do that. But privately, many of them have thought about it. Making that happen would probably require a state constitutional amendment, and lots of people would oppose the idea. But the state would have one big incentive to do that: money.

Taxpayers would save the nearly $300 million a year Lansing now sends to Ann Arbor. State support for the university has, however, has been steadily shrinking. In 1960, the taxpayers supplied 78% of the U of M’s budget. Now, it’s a mere 16%.

If the U of M was private, it could use hat size as a standard for admission if it wanted to. I’m not saying privatization will happen, and I am not saying it would be a good idea. What I am saying is that in today’s world, you never know.