The US legal system is now a step closer to settling the question of whether university admissions policies that favor racial or ethnic minorities are constitutional. For the moment, however, the question is murkier than ever.
A US court of appeals in Cincinnati this week upheld the policy of the law school of the University of Michigan, under which a "critical mass" of minority students are admitted to enhance the diversity of viewpoints at the school (see story, page 3).
This ruling is diametrically opposed to recent decisions by other US appellate benches, which have rejected any use of racial preferences.
Indeed, the Cincinnati court itself split nearly down the middle. Five judges agreed with the diversity argument; four dissenters found the law-school policy tantamount to a racial quota. And both sides based their arguments on the US Supreme Court's 1978 Bakke decision, the high court's last definitive ruling on the subject.
The Michigan case probably twinned with a similar case involving undergraduate admissions at the same university will give the Supreme Court an opportunity to clarify matters.
But clarification in this area must go deeper than judicial opinions. While the legal trend has been against policies that have any whiff of a racial quota, higher education generally is committed to opening its doors wider to students from diverse backgrounds.
And that's as it should be. Ways to continue expanding educational opportunity must be found. Some states are admitting a certain percentage of top graduates from each of their high schools to their university systems. Elementary and secondary schooling also must be strengthened to prepare a wider range of young Americans for college.
Whatever the courts decide, ensuring greater access to education should remain a clear national goal.