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Bush to Challenge Univ. of Mich. on Race

January 16, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush took a middle road in the political and legal fight over affirmative action, denouncing race-conscious university admissions policies now before the Supreme Court but sidestepping the larger question of whether racial preferences are always unconstitutional.

The Bush administration planned to file a friend-of-the-court brief Thursday that takes the part of white students denied admission to the University of Michigan. The rejected students maintain they had grades and qualifications at least equal to successful minority applicants.

Bush on Wednesday denounced the Michigan policies as de facto quota systems for minorities, and said there were other, better ways to achieve the laudable goal of increasing minority university enrollment.

``Students are being selected or rejected based primarily on the color of their skin. The motivation for such an admissions policy may be very good, but its result is discrimination, and that discrimination is wrong,″ Bush said in brief remarks at the White House.

Mary Sue Coleman, University of Michigan’s president, said Thursday ``it is unfortunate that the president misunderstands our admissions policy.″

``We don’t have a quota system,″ she said on ABC’s ``Good Morning America.″ Coleman acknowledged that ``race is a factor″ but said that is permissible under a previous Supreme Court ruling.

``We’re very worried about the effects of not being able to take race into account,″ she said, ``because we do believe this would turn back the clock on civil rights in this country.″

Affirmative action is a lightning rod both for the administration’s most conservative supporters and for black and Hispanic voters Bush would like to court. Some conservatives, including senior members of Bush’s own Justice Department, had urged the president to take a tougher stand.

In avoiding a categorical stance against all use of race, the administration offers something to both camps, several observers said.

``I think they’re going to make an attempt to be realistic,″ said Catholic University law school dean Douglas Kmiec, who applauded the administration stance. ``There is still racism in our society and when one is constructing a university, it’s not illogical to be sensitive to those who have experienced racism in their lives.″

Democrats and civil rights leaders swiftly attacked Bush’s position.

``The Bush administration continues a disturbing pattern of using the rhetoric of diversity as a substitute for real progress on a civil right agenda,″ said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The administration’s brief would urge the court to declare the Michigan program unconstitutional because it was not narrowly tailored to the problem of low minority enrollment, a senior administration official said.

That position would not break much legal ground, because the Supreme Court already has banned the use of racial quotas in university admissions and said any government affirmative action program must be drawn very narrowly.

The high court last spoke on affirmative action in college admissions in a 1978 ruling that struck down quotas but allowed admissions officers to use race as a ``plus factor″ when selecting students.

In revisiting the issue, the justices could now reverse course and say that all use of race is unconstitutional, because it treats people differently, or it could draw new rules for when race may be an appropriate factor.

The Bush administration will not address the thorny issue of whether the 1978 decision should be overturned, said the administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Nor will it directly address whether race may play any role at all in admissions.

Bush campaigned against racial quotas, but finessed the larger debate over affirmative action by noting his commitment to race-neutral ``affirmative access.″

The Bush administration is not a party to the Michigan case and did not have to take any position. It would have been unusual, however, for the White House to stay on the sidelines in such a high profile case.

The Supreme Court will hear the case in March, with a ruling expected by summer. At issue are an undergraduate admissions scoring system that gave extra points to minorities, and a law school system that tried to ensure a certain percentage of each class was minority.

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