Saim Choudhry, a U-M junior from Grosse Ile, made sure admissions officials knew he had siblings who attended U-M. (Max Ortiz / The Detroit News)
Ann Arbor— The University of Michigan looks at a potential student’s alumni connections, artistic talent and nearly 50 other factors in the admissions process, so it’s wrong the state’s universities cannot consider race too, an attorney will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court next week.
Detroit lawyer George Washington will point to criteria that give prospective students an advantage for admittance into U-M when he argues Tuesday before the High Court, which is hearing an affirmative action case stemming from Michigan for the second time in a decade.
Washington represents the group seeking to overturn the state’s 2006 ban on considering race in college admissions. The group, By Any Means Necessary, sued the University of Michigan, Wayne State and Michigan State universities and the state attorney general for implementing the law. Washington said he will use U-M’s entrance criteria as a central part of his legal argument.
“For every other purpose, the universities in the state recognize (student applicants) for all kinds of differences,” said Washington. “But the only place they they are not allowed to recognize differences is on race, which is the greatest inequality of all.”
But state Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is defending Michigan’s constitutional amendment, said the state’s voters spoke on the issue, and their will should be upheld.
“We are saying it is fundamentally wrong to treat people differently on the basis of your race or the color of your skin,” he said. The schools have remained neutral in the case.
Besides banning race from being used in college admissions, Michigan’s law also bars the use of affirmative action in public hiring and contracting; the latter part of the ban is not part of the case before the Supreme Court.
The genesis of the conversation in Michigan began when former Southgate resident Jennifer Gratz filed a class-action lawsuit in 1997 challenging U-M’s usage of points for minorities in undergraduate admissions. Another student sued over the U-M law school’s admission policy, a holistic approach that used race as one factor.
The cases made it to the Supreme Court, which in 2003 barred the point system but upheld the holistic approach.
Now, the court is looking at Michigan’s 2006 ban, approved by 58 percent of voters in the wake of the high court’s 2003 decisions. The ruling could have implications for similar laws enacted by voters in six states, approved by lawmakers intwo other states and enacted by executive order inFlorida.
Among the chief arguments Washington said he will present to the justices: U-M considers a host of issues besides a prospective student’s academic standing, test scores and essay. For instance: Are the applicants from the first generation of their family to go to college? Do they live in an under-represented area? Attend an academically disadvantaged school? Are they creative? Intellectually curious? Have a grasp of world events?
It’s no secret what can help someone get in, said Saim Choudhry, a U-M junior from Grosse Ile. That’s why when he applied, he made sure that admissions officials knew he had a brother and a half sister who also had attended U-M, in addition to his 3.96 grade-point average and top 15 ranking at his high school.
“I knew it would help me,” said Choudhry, 20. “Whatever can help you, you have to use.”
Since the ban took effect, Michigan’s 15 public universities have not been able to consider race in the admissions process.
At U-M — where nearly 47,000 applicants competed for 6,000 slots this year — undergraduate admissions officers no longer use points and instead use a holistic approach to evaluate applicants.
Evaluators don’t weigh any of the categories, and use words such as “outstanding,” “good” and “below average/poor” when evaluating applications.
“We seek to admit students who present a well-rounded applicant profile, which includes both academic excellence and robust extracurricular engagement and achievement — students who are equipped to contribute intellectually, culturally and socially to the fabric of the university,” said Ted Spencer, associate vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admissions.
Not all students can demonstrate these attributes in the same way, Spencer said. For instance, prospective students from underserved high schools may not have had as broad a spectrum of advanced placement and other challenging curricular options as other applicants did.
“In those cases, we look at the transcript to see if the student challenged (themselves) as much as possible within the available high school curriculum,” Spencer said. “Similarly, many students have financial obligations in high school that require them to hold down jobs. We know it’s tough to fit extracurriculars into that sort of schedule, and that is taken into consideration.”
In spite of not being able to consider race, Spencer said U-M has been growing a network of outreach programs that helps high-achieving students connect with the university, because diversity matters.
Quoting U-M President Mary Sue Coleman, Spencer said, “It matters today, and it will matter tomorrow. It will always matter because it is what makes us the great university we are.”