WASHINGTON – The nation's college administrators called the split Supreme Court (search) ruling on affirmative action a victory that will allow them to keep admissions policies largely intact.
"The decisions uphold the principle that colleges have the right to not only use their own discretion, but that there is a compelling interest to making sure diversity is there," said Cheryl Fields, a spokeswoman for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (search), which represents 211 schools.
"Based on that, I think most universities will not have to make sweeping changes in what they're doing," she said.
Along with other higher education experts, Fields embraced the court's 5-4 decision Monday to uphold the University of Michigan's (search) law school admission policy that sought a "critical mass" of minorities.
The experts discounted the court's companion ruling which, by a 6-3 vote, struck down Michigan's undergraduate admissions formula of awarding points to minorities based on race.
"The Michigan undergraduate program is relatively unique and is not replicated by a significant number of schools," said Sheldon Steinbach, the general counsel for the American Council on Education, an umbrella group representing many U.S. universities.
University of New Mexico officials were pleased with the decision.
"The importance of maintaining a diverse student body and the University of New Mexico's commitment to diversity will continue to be a central area of emphasis," said F. Chris Garcia, UNM's interim president. "We strongly believe that a diverse campus enriches us all. We are pleased that the Supreme Court has provided the clarity that higher education was seeking following the Baake decision."
The ruling will have no impact on New Mexico State University, school officials said.
"Our admissions criteria does not include race," said NMSU Vice President for Admissions Gladys De Necochea. "Our demographic profile for 2002 demonstrates the lack of need for that criteria."
She says 52 percent of the student body is white. Of the 48 percent minority popluation, 41 percent are Hispanic, 3 percent are black, 3 percent are American Indian and 1 percent Asian.
A leading opponent of affirmative action policies warned that the court's "great disservice" in the Michigan rulings extends the debate over racial balancing that began 25 years ago, when the court said race was one of several factors that can be considered in determining college admissions.
Ward Connerly, who helped win voter approval of an anti-affirmative initiative affecting California schools, vowed to present his case to voters across the nation.
"We have to seriously contest all this at the ballot box as we did in California," Connerly said. "It may be time for us to pay a visit to the state of Michigan and let the voters decide if they want to use race as a factor in admissions. The court said they may use race. They didn't say they have to use race."
But the mood among officials at Michigan was upbeat.
"This is a resounding affirmation that will be heard across the land, from our college classrooms to our corporate boardrooms," Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman said in a statement.
Rebecca Chopp, the president of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., said the law school ruling leaves the status quo in place at her school and most other small, liberal arts colleges.
"We look at each student very uniquely and evaluate them qualitatively. So, certainly, race is important," Chopp said. "But what part of the country that they come from and whether they're a cello player or a lacrosse player is important, too."
In Florida, the state has dropped affirmative action programs in favor of so-called percentage plans, which guarantee that top-tier students from each high school will be admitted to public universities, regardless of race.
Democratic state lawmakers said in the aftermath of Monday's ruling that programs which include race should be revived, but GOP Gov. Jeb Bush said the policy wouldn't change.
Texas also uses a percentage plan. That program will stay in place, but University of Texas President Larry Faulkner said the school also would start work on a new admissions policy that takes race into account.
Like Connerly, few in higher education believe the court's ruling will be the last word on affirmative action.
"In a country that graduates 44,000 lawyers per year and is a litigious society, everything is subject to challenge," Steinbach said.
The senior faculty adviser for the National Black Student Union praised the court, however, for providing a "firm foundation" for future challenges to affirmative action.
Said Roger Pulliam, assistant vice chancellor for academic support services at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater: "Given the political climate, we could have lost everything."