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Justices’ affirmative action ruling leaves out Michigan

Detroit News staff and wire reports

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a University of Texas program that considers race as a factor in admissions won’t have any effect on Michigan.

The justices voted in favor of the Texas program by a 4-3 vote, an outcome that was dramatically altered by the death this year of Justice Antonin Scalia, who opposed affirmative action.

The ruling is a major victory for supporters of affirmative action but does not extend to Michigan and seven other states that ban colleges and universities from considering race in admissions.

In a statement, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel acknowledged the decision would not change admissions policies at the Ann Arbor school but praised it was a step forward.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for all who value a robust exchange of perspectives and support our ability to prepare students to succeed in an increasingly multicultural society,” he said.

“Universities cannot be excellent without being diverse,” Schlissel said. “Public universities such as the University of Michigan and the University of Texas have a special role and responsibility to uphold these inseparable values.

“It is, however, important to note that this U.S. Supreme Court ruling does not apply to the University of Michigan,” he said.

Schlissel has repeatedly emphasized the importance of increasing diversity at UM since becoming the school’s president two years ago. UM enrolled its most diverse freshman class in a decade last fall, with underrepresented minorities making up 12.8 percent of the new students.

The University of Texas considers race among many factors in admitting the last quarter of incoming freshman classes. Texas fills most of the freshman class by guaranteeing admission to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their Texas high school class.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion that the Texas plan complied with earlier court rulings allowing colleges to take account of race in pursuit of diversity on campus. “The university has thus met its burden of showing that the admissions policy it used … was narrowly tailored,” Kennedy wrote.

The court’s three more conservative justices dissented, and Justice Samuel Alito read portions of his dissent from the bench.

In a separate dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas repeated his view that the Constitution outlaws any use of race in higher education admissions.

Just seven justices participated in the decision since Scalia’s death in February. Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case because she worked on it while serving in the Justice Department.

The high court ruled in the case of Abigail Fisher, a white Texan who was denied admission to the university’s flagship campus in Austin in 2008. Fisher claimed she was rejected while African-American applicants with lower grades and test scores were admitted. The school said Fisher, who did not graduate in the top 10 percent of her high school class, would not have been admitted with or without race as a factor. But officials did conditionally offer to allow her to transfer in as a sophomore if she maintained a 3.2 grade point average at another public college in Texas.

Instead, Fisher went to Louisiana State University, from which she graduated in 2012, and pursued her lawsuit. Fisher was recruited for the suit by Edward Blum, an opponent of racial preferences who has been remarkably successful in persuading the Supreme Court to hear cases challenging the use of race in education and politics. Blum was behind a major challenge to the landmark Voting Rights Act that resulted in the court eviscerating a key provision of the law and he also led an unsuccessful challenge to states’ widespread practice of counting all their residents, not just those eligible to vote, in drawing legislative districts.

Justices heard Fisher’s case once before, and issued an inconclusive ruling in 2013 that sent her case back to a lower court and set the stage for Monday’s decision.

In 2003, the justices reaffirmed the consideration of race in the quest for diversity on campus. Their decision then set a goal of doing away with such programs in 25 years.

Texas is unique in marrying the top 10 plan to a separate admissions review in which race is one of many factors considered. The university’s current freshman class is 22 percent Hispanic and 4.5 percent African-American. White students make up less than half the school’s freshmen.

Beside Michigan, the other states that ban the use of race in public college admissions are Arizona, California, Florida, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington.

The Detroit News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.