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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Background Summary & Questions (•)

In the early 1970s, the medical school of the University of California at Davis admitted 100 students each year. The university used two admissions programs: a regular admissions program and a special admissions program. The purpose of the special admissions program was to increase the number of minority and "disadvantaged" students in the class. Applicants who were members of a minority group or who believed that they were disadvantaged could apply for the special admissions program.

In the regular admissions program, applicants had to have a grade point average of at least 2.5 on a scale of 4.0 or they were automatically rejected. In the special admissions program, however, applicants did not have to have a grade point average of 2.5. Sixteen of the 100 spaces in the medical program were reserved only for the disadvantaged students. This is known as a quota system.

From 1971 to 1974 the special program admitted 21 black students, 30 Mexican Americans, and 12 Asians, for a total of 63 minority students.* The regular program admitted 1 black student, 6 Mexican Americans, and 37 Asians, for a total of 44 minority students. No disadvantaged white candidates were admitted through the special program.

Allan Bakke was a white male. He applied to and was rejected from the regular admissions program in 1973 and 1974. Minority applicants with lower scores than Bakke's were admitted under the special program.

After his second rejection, Bakke filed a lawsuit in the Superior Court of Yolo County, California. He wanted the Court to force the University of California at Davis to admit him to the medical school. He also claimed that the special admissions program violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment says, in part, "No State . . . shall deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws." Bakke said that the University, a state school, was treating him unequally because of his race. He thought that if he were a minority that he would have been admitted to the school.

The university argued that their system of admission preferences served several important purposes.  It helped counter the effects of discrimination in society.  Since historically, minors were discriminated against in medical school admissions and in the medical profession, their special admission program could help reverse that.   The university also said that the special program increased the number of physicians who practice in underserved communities.  Finally, the university reasoned that there are educational benefits to all students when the student body is ethnically and racially diverse. 

The Superior Court of Yolo County, California agreed with Bakke. It said that the special admissions program violated the federal and state constitutions and was therefore illegal. The Court said that a person's race could not be considered when the University decides whom to admit.

The University of California and Bakke both appealed the case to the Supreme Court of California. This court also declared the special admissions policy unconstitutional and said that Bakke had to be admitted to the medical school. The Regents of the University of California then appealed the case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

*Note: These were the racial classifications used by the University of California at Davis at the time.

Questions to Consider
  1. Why would a college or university consider race when deciding whom to admit?  
  2. Why would some people say it is unfair for a college or university to consider race when deciding whom to admit?  
  3. Do you think colleges and universities should consider race when deciding whom to admit? Why or why not?  
  4. What did the Superior Court of Yolo County, California and the Supreme Court of California say about choosing applicants based on race?
< Regents of the University of California v. Bakke