A divided Supreme Court allowed universities to give minority applicants an edge in admissions Monday, ruling that the path to leadership in the nation must "be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity." But it also said that race cannot be the determining factor.
In two decisions, the court underscored that racial quotas are unconstitutional but left room for the nation's public universities -- and by extension other public and private institutions -- to seek ways to take race into account.
Dr. Pauline Fox, interim assistant to the president for equity issues, said race isn't a part of the admissions process at the Southeast Missouri State University.
"We use admissions standards related to ACT scores and GPA, so as far as I can tell, the ruling shouldn't have any effect on us," Fox said.
The court preserved the rules outlined a generation ago in a landmark ruling that struck down quotas but allowed subtler forms of affirmative action. Monday's rulings mean that race-conscious policies in place in institutions as diverse as military academies and women's studies courses will probably remain in force.
Writing for the majority in the 5-4 ruling upholding an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan's law school, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the value of diverse classrooms extends far beyond the campus.
"This court has long recognized that 'education is the very foundation of good citizenship,'" O'Connor wrote, quoting from the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling of nearly 50 years ago.
"For this reason, the diffusion of knowledge and opportunity through public institutions of higher education must be accessible to all individuals regardless of race or ethnicity," O'Connor wrote. "Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized."
At the same time, the high court voted 6-3 to strike down a separate point system used by the University of Michigan's undergraduate school.
In upholding the law school program that sought a "critical mass" of minorities, O'Connor sided with the court's more liberal justices. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion in the 6-3 case finding against the undergraduate school. He was joined by O'Connor and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer.
Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.
Staff writer Callie Clark contributed to this report.