Today in Civil Rights History: Bakke Decision Upholds Use of Race in Public University Admissions

Today is the 31st anniversary of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a 1978 Supreme Court case that banned race-based quotas in college admissions while stating that these institutions have a “compelling state interest” in achieving diverse student bodies.  The Court ruled that admissions boards can use race as one of many factors to achieve diversity. 

The University of California-Davis School of Medicine had two admissions processes, one for standard applicants, and another for minority and economically disadvantaged students. After not being able to attain the desired minority and economically disadvantaged students it sought, UC Davis created the special admissions process in 1973. Each year, 16 of the 100 slots for medical school students were reserved for admits under the special program.

In 1973 and 1974, Alan Bakke applied to UC Davis School of Medicine, and was rejected both times.  After his second rejection, Bakke sued, arguing that he was excluded from the special admissions process based on race.  He argued that the special admissions process violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities that receive federal funds.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court found in Bakke’s favor and ruled that the medical school had to admit Bakke.  But Justice Lewis Powell, in his majority opinion affirmed the use of race as ‘one of many factors’ in university admissions because the state has a real and compelling interest to promote diversity. 

After Bakke, opponents of equal opportunity continued to challenge equal opportunity initiatives in court.  But in the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Bakke precedent that diversity is a compelling state interest and race can be used as one of many factors in university admissions.