Posted on September 1, 2022

Affirmative Action Was Banned at Two Top Universities. They Say They Need It.

Stephanie Saul, New York Times, August 26, 2022

It has been more than 15 years since two of the country’s top public university systems, the University of Michigan and the University of California, were forced to stop using affirmative action in admissions.

Since then, both systems have tried to build racially diverse student bodies through extensive outreach and major financial investment, well into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Those efforts have fallen abysmally short, the universities admitted in two amicus briefs filed this month at the Supreme Court, which is set to consider the future of affirmative action in college admissions this fall.

Among the data points: In 2021, the entering freshman class at the University of California, Berkeley, included 258 Black students and 27 Native American students out of a class of 6,931. That same year, Black enrollment at Michigan’s flagship campus in Ann Arbor was 4 percent, even as the university maintained a special admissions office in Detroit to recruit Black students.

The outreach programs are extremely costly. The University of California system says it has spent more than a half-billion dollars since 2004 to increase diversity among its students.

In the briefs, lawyers for the universities argue that, without affirmative action, achieving racial diversity is virtually impossible at highly selective universities.

“Despite persistent, vigorous and varied efforts to increase student body racial and ethnic diversity by race-neutral means,” the brief from Michigan stated, “the admission and enrollment of underrepresented minority students have fallen precipitously in many of U-M’s schools and colleges” since the end of affirmative action.


The Supreme Court is scheduled on Oct. 31 to hear the lawsuits brought by the anti-affirmative action organization Students for Fair Admissions that challenge the race-conscious methods that Harvard and the University of North Carolina use to pick freshman classes.

The organization says that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans and that North Carolina gives an admissions boost to underserved racial minorities. And the group argues in its own brief, filed this week, that ending affirmative action nationwide would help improve diversity at the University of California and the University of Michigan, “because they could better compete with universities who currently use race.”


Affirmative action is banned by local edict in nine states, including Michigan and California. Some states without affirmative action programs, like Oklahoma, have taken the opposite position in briefs to the court, arguing that the University of Oklahoma “remains just as diverse today (if not more so) than it was when Oklahoma banned affirmative action in 2012.” Thirteen other states joined the Oklahoma brief.

Oklahoma’s freshman class in 2020, according to data released by the university, was 61 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic, 3.7 percent Black and 2.1 percent American Indian. The state’s brief points out that a large number of students identified as “two or more races” and that the number of those who were part Black would increase the Black percentage to more than 6 percent. Black residents make up 7.8 percent of the state’s population.


At the University of Michigan, a voter referendum known as Proposal 2, Affirmative Action Initiative, was adopted in 2006, resulting in a state constitutional ban on race-conscious admissions. That prompted sharp drops in enrollment of Black and Native American students. {snip}


Black undergraduate enrollment declined to 4 percent in 2021 from 7 percent in 2006, the brief said, even as the total percentage of college-age African Americans in Michigan increased to 19 percent from 16 percent. At the same time, Native American enrollment, once as high as 1 percent, dropped to 0.11 percent in 2021, the brief said.


In California, Proposition 209 was adopted in 1996, banning racial preferences in admissions. By the fall of 2006, there were 96 Black students in a freshman class of nearly 5,000 at the University of California, Los Angeles.


Since then, enrollment of underserved minorities in the California system has partially recovered. For example, U.C.L.A.’s Black enrollment, 7 percent before Proposition 209 was adopted, fell to 3.43 percent in 1998. By 2019, it had increased to 5.98 percent. California’s population is 6.5 percent Black.


While 52 percent of California’s public high school students identify as Hispanic, 15 percent of freshmen at Berkeley identified as Hispanic, with the figure at the system’s nine campuses overall standing at 25 percent.