Grutter v. Bollinger (2003); Gratz v. Bollinger (2003)

Written into the civil rights laws of the 1960s, affirmative action was designed to ensure equal opportunity for groups that had long been discriminated against by employers and institutions. Michigan Law School, one of the nation’s top law schools, modified its admission process to ensure the diversity of its student body. According to its admissions policy, the school looks for students with “substantial promise for success in law school” and who have “a strong likelihood of succeeding in the practice of law and contributing in diverse ways to the well-being of others” and “varying backgrounds and experiences who will respect and learn from each other.”

When it denied admission to Barbara Grutter, a white Michigan resident, she sued, saying she was discriminated against on the basis of race. By a margin of only one vote (now-retired Justice O’Connor’s) the Supreme Court decided in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) that it was legal for the law school to use race as one of the factors in deciding which students to admit. The Court found that diversity was valuable and that admissions policies can justify looking at race and ethnicity as factors in admissions in a carefully crafted policy to achieve diversity.

However, the use of race in admission must be limited, and is sometimes difficult to employ. In a companion case, the Supreme Court found University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy to be unlawful. The admissions process was also intended to encourage diversity and it considered many factors, including grades, test scores, high school quality, curriculum strength, where the student is from, relationships with college alumni, leadership potential, and race. Each factor including race was assigned a number of points toward a 100-point minimum for admission. This, the university argued, encouraged diversity and significantly contributed to a better educational environment.

The Supreme Court decided, however, that this admissions policy was unconstitutional because applicants from underrepresented groups were given points based on their race or ethnicity. Colleges and universities that attempt to foster and support diversity have to strike a very delicate balance. And now that the makeup of the Supreme Court has changed, and Justice O’Connor has retired, diversity in the schools hangs in the balance.

For more information see our fact sheets on education and racial justice.