Gratz v. Bollinger: Case Brief & Summary

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

In 2003, the Supreme Court considered whether universities can use a specific form of affirmative action in undergraduate admissions. In this lesson, we will learn about ''Gratz v. Bollinger'' and discuss affirmative action in this context.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action is a type of policy that attempts to address past issues of discrimination in housing, education, and employment through targeted choices among applicants. For example, a business which wants to improve the proportion of minority executives among its staff may seek out more people of color to hire and promote.

In this lesson we will emphasize the role of affirmative action in university education. Universities, as public institutions, often try to improve the proportion of students from underrepresented backgrounds on campus. These policies tend to take shape through the application process for incoming students. Some campuses have weighed an applicant more heavily, making it more likely that the student will be accepted, if he or she is from an underrepresented group.

Affirmative action can be controversial. On the one hand, affirmative action provides an important tool for universities to address previous issues of discrimination, where few people of color were admitted into their colleges. This benefits the university community by bringing many voices into campus discussions, which in turn exposes students to a greater range of individual perspectives and helps round out their educational experiences. On the other hand, critics argue that some students are accepted into universities that are too difficult for their skills and the students are doomed to failure. Other critics worry that academically qualified students are denied admission because they are not from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Gratz v. Bollinger Case Background

In the related cases of Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the University of Michigan came under fire for its admissions policies. Grutter concerned the university's law school admission plan. This lesson discusses the other case, Gratz v. Bollinger, and its consequences for U of M's undergraduate admission system.

In 1995 and 1997, Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher (the plaintiffs in this case) applied to U of M's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA). Both were turned down, despite being identified by admissions officers as ''well qualified'' and ''qualified,'' respectively. Admissions considered ''a number of factors in making admissions decisions, including high school grades, standardized test scores, high school quality, curriculum strength, geography, alumni relationships, leadership, and race,'' (539 U.S. 244). The form of affirmative action used by the school was known as a points system, where applications were given a score based on these criteria, and students who received at least 100 points were admitted. African American, Native American, and Hispanic students were deemed to be underrepresented on campus; individuals who identified as any of these were automatically given 20 of the needed 100 points. In combination with other factors, like participation in athletics and high school grade point average (G.P.A.), ''it is undisputed that the University admits virtually every qualified applicant from these groups'' (539 U.S. 244). By contrast, an application essay is worth up to 3 points and 'personal achievement, leadership, or public service,' (539 U.S. 278) up to 5 points.

Gratz and Hamacher argued that this system violates the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because it discriminates against white students while attempting to fix past discrimination against minority students. The District Court determined that the University of Michigan's policies from 1995 to 1998 were inappropriate. Although the case should have next gone before an appeals court, Gratz and Hamacher asked the Supreme Court to take the case before the appeals court made its decision. Their request was granted.

Constitutional Question

In this case, the Supreme Court had to decide if the University of Michigan's system violated the Constitution. Here, they asked if the points system in favor of minority applicants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and / or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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