The U.S. Supreme Court will take on another case concerning affirmative action in higher education, the court announced recently. This October, it will hear arguments over a Michigan amendment that has banned the use of race and gender as admissions factors for public colleges and universities.

Michigan voters passed the amendment, called the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), in 2006, effectively banning public institutions from any form of affirmative action in higher education. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is going up against the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action in a fight to decide whether that ban is constitutional.

A previous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals had ruled that it was not. The court argued that the ban set two very different standards for changes to the admissions process: While any other student who sought a special admissions policy for a particular group could simply petition the university, a student seeking a policy that included race as a factor would have to mount a statewide campaign to amend the constitution.

In an article on their website, Shanta Driver, national chairwoman for the affirmative action coalition, points out that the case goes far beyond Michigan’s state borders. A victory against Michigan’s amendment would also have implications for similar laws in California and other states. And existing laws have already had an impact, she says; admission of black and Hispanic applicants at selective schools in Michigan and California have fallen by one-third to one-half.

Schuette, who supports the ban, argued on his website that the earlier court’s decision essentially required the government to engage in affirmative action, and argued that the voters’ will should be upheld: “Entrance to our great colleges and universities must be based upon merit, and I remain optimistic moving forward in our fight for equality, fairness and rule of law at our nation’s highest court.”

In an online discussion of the case, Judith Lynn Failer, associate professor of political science and American studies at Indiana University, explains that the Supreme Court will ultimately decide what diversity means in higher education in accordance with equal protection under the law.

Some proponents, Failer says, believe “equal” means everyone should be treated the same; others believe “equal” refers to equal treatment for all, which means universities should take an active role in admitting a diverse student body, increasing a minority’s chance for success. MCRI proponents believe all students should have the same chance, and no ethnicity should receive precedence over another, or receive benefits for being a certain race. But, Indiana University’s professors warned, continuation of such bans would mean a major hit to enrollment of minority students.

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