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http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/16/national/16AFFI.html?ex=1043736203&ei=1&en=3444ba3b60c21937WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 - President Bush  offered a sweeping
denunciation of direct preferences for racial minorities in
university admissions today and said his administration
would file a brief with the Supreme Court urging that the
affirmative action admissions policies at the University of
Michigan be declared unconstitutional.
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including
racial diversity in higher education," Mr. Bush said in a
nationally televised address. "But the method used by the
University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is
fundamentally flawed. At their core, the Michigan policies
amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes
prospective students based solely on their race."
In putting himself on the side of three white students who
assert they were denied admission to the undergraduate and
law programs in favor of less qualified minority
candidates, Mr. Bush moved to the front lines of the
nation's debate about affirmative action programs.
The president said that while he believed there should be a
way to ensure more minority students in universities,
programs like the ones at Michigan "create another wrong
and thus perpetuate our divisions."
Such programs, he said, "are divisive, unfair and
impossible to square with our Constitution."
In a sign of the careful political calibration of his
words, the president repeatedly used the term "quotas" to
describe Michigan's admissions policy, a word that
inevitably draws strong opposition in polls.
The president's decision to intervene in the case was
significant because the Bush administration was not legally
involved and did not have to take a position.
Despite the broad-gauge language in Mr. Bush's address this
evening, the possible scope of the brief that the
administration will file with the Supreme Court on Thursday
Shortly after the president spoke, a senior White House
official involved in drafting the brief told reporters it
would be "very narrowly tailored" to address only the
The official, who spoke on the condition he not be
identified, said the administration's brief would not call
for the court to overturn the holding in the landmark 1978
Bakke decision that race could be a factor in university
When the official was asked whether Mr. Bush and the
administration believed race may ever be a factor, he
declined to reply directly and said, "We need not address
in this case the outer limits of what is constitutional."
The president's statement pleased many in his party's
conservative base. Yet it also comes at a time that the
Republican Party has been in turmoil over racially charged
statements by Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, which may
have set back the party's efforts to increase its appeal to
minority voters. Democrats were quick to denounce the
administration's position on affirmative action and portray
it as a true measure of Mr. Bush and his party.
Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the minority leader,
was one of several Democrats who said the president's
approach to the University of Michigan should be viewed as
a litmus test of the administration's commitment to civil
Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who is seeking
the presidency, said, "This administration continues a
disturbing pattern of using the rhetoric of diversity as a
substitute for real progress on a civil rights agenda."
Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, dismissed any
idea that the White House deliberations over how to
confront the issue had been influenced by politics.
"The president is dismissive of any notion involving the
political implications of a decision on a matter as
important and sensitive as something involving race and
admission to college campuses, which is how Americans get
their opportunity to make it in our country," Mr. Fleischer
said at the White House briefing.
Mr. Bush's comments today came after four moderate
Republicans had urged him not to oppose the plaintiffs in
the Michigan lawsuit. The senators, Arlen Specter of
Pennsylvania, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine
and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, said in a letter to the
president that universities should be able to take race
into direct account.
"Many Republicans throughout the nation believe that
diversity should be recognized as a compelling government
interest in the admissions policies" of universities, they
Many conservatives were elated by Mr. Bush's stance.
However, there was still uncertainty among longtime
opponents of affirmative action, who worried that his
administration's brief might not go far enough.
Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal
Opportunity, a group that works to end racial preferences,
applauded the president's remarks. But she said it would be
a disappointment if Mr. Bush left the door open to the
slightest possibility that it would be acceptable to
consider race in admissions.
"If the court leaves any door open on taking race into
account," Ms. Chavez said, "you'll just have more and more
creative attempts from university administrators to
accomplish what they have been doing for years."
Ms. Chavez said that for the administration to maintain its
credibility on the issue with its conservative supporters,
it would have to say directly that race may not be taken
into account because there is no compelling state interest
in promoting diversity. In the Michigan cases, the court is
set to decide whether there is a compelling state interest
in a diverse student body to justify preferences for
The court will also have to decide whether the Michigan
programs were narrowly tailored to meet that goal and did
not go too far.
Mr. Bush said today that the programs were unconstitutional
because they relied too heavily on race. In Michigan's
undergraduate school, minority candidates were given extra
points in a formula to decide whether they could be
The law school simply counted race as one factor among
many. But Bush administration lawyers say it operated as a
quota system because in practice it resulted in the
incoming class always having a similar percentage of
Lee C. Bollinger, who was the president of the University
of Michigan when the litigation began, said the president
was incorrect in his characterization of the programs.
Mr. Bollinger, who is now the president of Columbia
University, said in a telephone interview that Mr. Bush "is
simply incorrect" and that "these are not quotas."
He said Mr. Bush was using that label "to try and isolate a
program and make it seem exceptional, but the fact of the
matter is that Michigan's program is virtually the same as
those of selective universities across the country."
In his remarks, Mr. Bush suggested that it was acceptable
to take race into account in what has sometimes been called
the original definition of affirmative action, simply
reaching out to minorities to apprise them of
"University officials have the responsibility and the
obligation to make a serious, effective effort to reach out
to students from all walks of life without falling back on
unconstitutional quotas," Mr. Bush said. "Schools should
seek diversity by considering a broad range of factors in
admissions, including a student's potential and life
He also cited a program in Texas, where he was governor, in
which students in the top 10 percent of each high school
class are guaranteed admission to the University of Texas.
The senior White House official who spoke to reporters
said the president believed that "we need to try, if at all
possible, to promote the broadest amount of diversity
without taking race into account."
In its brief, the university argues that with strictly
race-blind admissions, it could not possibly build the
"critical mass" of minority students necessary to make
diversity more than an empty promise.
Despite strong recruitment efforts, the university said,
the law school received only 35 applications from minority
students at the top range of undergraduate grades and law
board scores that account for nearly all admissions. In
contrast, the school received 900 applications from white
students in that range.
Even with a "race-blind lottery," the brief said, "the
percentage of African-American students enrolled would
almost certainly fall below 3 percent."
The court is set to hear arguments in the case in April and
is expected to issue a decision this spring.