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Equal Protection

Equal Protection

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Home Civics Equal Protection History University of California v. Bakke

University of California v. Bakke

  • 1970s affirmative action program at UC Davis Medical School set a specific racial quota, setting aside 16% of its admits for minority applicants
  • Rejected white applicant Allan Bakke sued, alleging that the quota violated his right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment
  • Supreme Court ruled in Bakke's favor, banning fixed racial quotas, but did allow schools to consider race as one factor among many in admissions decisions

While the federal government and federal courts were urging private employers and state agencies to take "affirmative action" to increase minority hiring, America's colleges took the same approach to diversify their student bodies. A decade after Brown, African-American enrollment in colleges had changed little. In 1955, only 4.9% of all college students, ages 18 to 24, were black. The number grew to 6.5% in the five years following the decision, but had returned to 4.9% by 1965.29 Based on the premise that African Americans were still underrepresented (blacks were about 11% of the total American population in 1965), and that simply removing legal and institutional barriers did not address the more complex reasons limiting African-American enrollment, colleges adopted a number of programs to redress the imbalance. Some increased outreach and recruitment efforts; some worked with secondary schools to strengthen college preparatory programs for black high school students. Others adopted enrollment targets and attached annual admissions quotas to move the school toward these targets.

The University of California, Davis Medical School was among the schools that adopted a quota system to diversify its student body. It set aside sixteen of its 100 slots each year for minority applicants. The medical school believed it had taken a reasonable approach to increasing the number of minority students at Davis and the number of minority doctors within the medical community. But at least one applicant to the medical school disagreed.

Allan Bakke, a white, 32 year-old engineer, applied and was rejected twice by the UC Davis Medical School. He had an impressive academic record with degrees from the University of Minnesota and Stanford, and he had served in Vietnam. Noting that all of the students admitted to the sixteen slots reserved for minority applicants had lower grades and test scores than he did, Bakke argued that the program violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as well as Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that stated that no person "shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

The medical school countered that several factors had contributed to Bakke's rejection, in particular his performance in a personal interview. Program defenders also pointed out that many other candidates, with scores higher than Bakke's had also been denied admission. But when the case made its way to the Supreme Court most of these explanations proved largely irrelevant. The central question was whether a quota system like U.C. Davis's was reconcilable with the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VI and whether race could legitimately be employed in college admissions processes.

On 26 June 1978, the Court reached something of a split decision. By a 5-4 vote it held that Davis's quota system did violate the Fourteenth Amendment, and it ordered the admission of Bakke. But the Court also held that race could be one factor among many used by schools in their admissions processes. Pursuing a diverse student body was a "constitutionally permissible goal," the Court argued, and toward that end "race or ethnic background may be deemed a 'plus' in a particular applicant's file." But to reduce this complex calculus to a strict numerical quota "would hinder rather than further attainment of genuine diversity."30

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