Joining 37 other higher education institutions, The Johns Hopkins University has filed an amicus brief exhorting the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the established precedent permitting colleges and universities to consider race among other factors used in their admissions practices to ensure educational diversity.
"We are exercising our right to participate in a public debate about a matter that is very important to our mission as an institution of higher education," said Steven Knapp, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. "Johns Hopkins has always been willing to take a leadership position and stand on principle in matters that we regard as important, and this is such a case."
To date, more than 300 organizations from academia, the corporate sector and labor have signed more than 60 briefs supporting the position of the University of Michigan, whose affirmative action admission policies in its undergraduate and law schools are being challenged by two separate lawsuits and the current federal administration.
The Supreme Court is expected to begin listening to oral arguments in the case on April 1.
Carnegie Mellon University led the effort to file the amicus brief that was promptly joined by Johns Hopkins and other nationally known schools, a list that includes the California Institute of Technology, Washington Univesity in St. Louis, New York University and Northwestern University.
The main argument presented in the brief is that the court should reaffirm Justice Lewis Powell's decision in the 1978 case of Bakke v. The University of California Board of Regents that "diversity, including racial diversity, serves compelling interests in excellence, leadership and experimentation in higher education" and that race should be considered as one of many factors when selecting students for admission.
Provost Knapp said the university joined the brief out of concern that the Supreme Court might overturn part, or all, of its earlier filing in the Bakke decision and reject the validity of diversity as a principle that universities can follow when they want to construct their entering class.
"As a societal necessity, we think it's important that universities have the freedom to carry out their mission in this way," Knapp said. "For us, diversity is a very important part of what it means to be an educational institution. We look for diversity of talents, background, extracurricular activities, geography, life experiences. Racial diversity is only one aspect of diversity, but it's a critically important aspect that is a response to a historical reality that there has been a pattern of discrimination in this country that has resulted in the curtailing of opportunities for some parts of society. That was the original rationale for affirmative action, and we believe that rationale still makes sense."
Knapp said that the university's decision to go on the record in this case also stems from its wariness of "the broader political movement trying to roll back affirmative action programs," adding that the University of Michigan system is perhaps being singled out as a way of getting at the larger issue.
While there is a clear distinction between the admissions policies of the University of Michigan--which gives extra points to black, Hispanic and American Indian applicants--and Johns Hopkins, in neither school are quotas being used, Knapp said, a policy that was deemed unconstitutional in the Bakke ruling.
"In a way, this case has been misrepresented publicly as a matter of quota systems or reverse discrimination," he said. "It's important to realize that race, in the way we consider it in applications, is part of a much broader evaluation of students on a case-by-case basis. We don't set aside minority applicants for a separate admissions process, and we don't have a quota of minority students who have to get admitted. We have a very thoughtful, multilayered and highly selective process of admissions here; there is no mechanical rigidity."
According to Gerard St. Ours, associate general counsel for the university, there is precedent at Johns Hopkins for this type of legal action. While the occasions have been rare, he said, the university has joined amicus briefs filed in the Supreme Court several times, when "there has been an issue of vital importance to our institution and/or higher education." Most recently, in January of this year, it joined an amicus brief in Duke University v. Madey, a case concerning research and patent rights.
Knapp said that the university chose to join the Carnegie Mellon-led brief because of the number of peer institutions involved and the fact that the university was able to significantly contribute to shaping the document.
The university's hope, he said, is that the collective message of all the briefs will influence the Supreme Court to uphold the current law of the land.
"We don't want to see this become an occasion where there might be a reversal of something as important as the Bakke decision," he said. "It's not just universities that are making the point but many different types of institutions from the corporate world and beyond that recognize the importance of exposing students to diversity and of training leaders from all sectors of American society and, indeed, from around the world."
Knapp said that in regard to diversity, he takes his cue from President William R. Brody, who has challenged the university to boldly move forward in this area, evidenced by the creation of the Diversity Leadership Council and the now two-year-old Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Programs.
Ray Gillian, assistant provost and director of EOAAP, said that concerted efforts are under way at Johns Hopkins to aggressively attract a more diverse pool of applicants, a process that should be allowed to continue.
"It's important that institutions not change what they are doing based on [the Bush administration's] brief or what could happen," Gillian said. "We must all wait for the decision of the Supreme Court before we make any changes to procedures, practices and policies."
In an open letter to the Johns Hopkins community, published in the Sept. 14, 1998, edition of The Gazette, Brody spelled out the university's ongoing commitment to diversity.
"Only by embracing the opportunities of diversity and promoting an environment welcoming to all can we hope to become one of the leading institutions of the 21st century." Later in his letter, Brody turned to the words of Justice Powell, quoting him as saying, "'It is not too much to say that the nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this nation of many peoples.'"
A decision in the University of Michigan case is expected as early as June.
To read the Carnegie Mellon amicus brief, go to www.jhu.edu/~gazette/2003/03mar03/pdf/amicus.pdf.