Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) was a landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court first addressed the merits of a claim on affirmative action, also identified by critics as race-conscious admissions policies or reverse discrimination (the term used in the plaintiff’s complaint), an extremely controversial topic with regard to admissions programs in higher education. At issue in Bakke was whether the separate admissions policy that officials at the medical school of the University of California at Davis used for disadvantaged minorities violated the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause and/or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The challenge for the Court was to balance the rights of individuals who sought equal treatment by officials at a public medical school and the state’s obligation to cultivate equality among its citizens. In light of the impact that Bakke has had on affirmative action plans in higher education, this entry reviews the case in detail.
Facts of the Case
In 1968, the UC Davis School of Medicine had opened with 50 students; in 1971, officials admitted a class of 100 students. There was no admissions program in place for minority or disadvantaged students when the school opened, and the first class included only three Asian Americans and no other minority or disadvantaged students. In response, the faculty devised a special admissions program in order to increase the number of minority and disadvantaged students in each subsequent class.
From 1971 to 1974, the special admissions program at UC Davis resulted in 63 minority students (21 African Americans, 30 Mexican Americans, and 12 Asian Americans) being admitted to the medical school, while the regular admissions program admitted 44 minority students (1 African American student, 6 Mexican Americans, and 37 Asian Americans). During this time, disadvantaged white students also applied through the special admission program, but none were admitted.
Alan Bakke, a white male, applied to UC Davis medical school in 1973 for consideration under the general admissions program and received an interview. Although considered a strong candidate with a benchmark score of 468 out of 500, he was rejected because his application was late coupled with the fact that no applicants in the general admissions process with scores below 470 were accepted. He was not considered for four unfilled special admissions slots. Bakke wrote to the associate dean and chair of the Admissions Committee protesting that the special admissions program functioned as a racial and ethnic quota system. He reapplied in 1974 and met the application deadline. The student interviewer scored him 94, commenting that he was “well tempered” and “conscientious.” By chance, the faculty interviewer was the same person he had written to in protest of the special admissions program. The faculty interviewer commented that Bakke was limited in his approach to problems of the medical field and based solutions on personal opinions rather a reliance on a study of the problems; this interviewer gave him the lowest of six ratings, 86. Bakke’s total was 549 out of 600 for the general admissions process, and he was again denied admission. At the discretion of the chair of the Admissions Committee, Bakke was not placed on the waiting list either year he applied for admission.
After his second rejection, Bakke filed a suit in a trial court in California seeking injunctive and declaratory relief requiring his admission to UC Davis. The suit alleged that the special admissions program operated to exclude the plaintiff on the basis of race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Section 601 of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The trial court, in an unpublished order, invalidated the UC Davis admission policy as unconstitutional. However, the court did not order the plaintiff’s admission, because he had not proven that he would have been admitted if the special admissions process did not exist.
On further review, the Supreme Court of California affirmed the unconstitutionality of the special admissions policy, because it violated the rights of nonminorities. The court explained that the program was unacceptable, because it granted minority applicants a race-based advantage in the admissions process even though, in light of the university’s criteria, they were not as qualified for the study of medicine as nonminorities who were denied admission. In addition, the court directed officials to admit the plaintiff. University officials appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Having sidestepped the merits of such a claim in DeFunis v. Odegaard (1974), wherein it decided that that a white law student’s challenge to an affirmative policy was moot because he was in his final year of study, and after granting an initial stay of the order of the Supreme Court of California, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Ruling
In Bakke, two important conclusions were reached by a divided Supreme Court in a plurality decision, meaning that five justices were unable to agree on a single rationale with regard to the place of race in admissions that would render their judgment binding precedent in other cases.
More specifically, the first plurality, led by Justice Stevens and joined by Chief Justice Burger along with Justices Stewart and Rehnquist, affirmed the Supreme Court of California’s rejection of the UC Davis admissions policy because it violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Justice Powell, in helping to create the plurality, viewed the policy as having violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. These justices maintained that Bakke should have been admitted to the medical school.
A second plurality consisting of Justices Brennan, White, Marshall, and Blackmun was formed by Justice Powell’s joining his colleagues to reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of California insofar as it barred any consideration of race as a factor in admissions actions. Justice Powell’s separate analysis upheld the use of race in admissions as a “plus” factor in indicating that the goal of having a diverse student body is a compelling governmental interest that could justify its consideration as one of numerous factors in the application process. The Court also vacated its earlier stay in the case. The dissenting justices feared that such an affirmative action policy was discriminatory.
Although the Bakke decision was made by a plurality, it stands out as the first case in a steady stream of litigation over affirmative action plans in a variety of settings in higher education and beyond. Bakke’s most direct application to higher education was in the companion cases of Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger (both decided in 2003). The Court upheld affirmative action policies used in the University of Michigan School of Law (Grutter) but rejected such policies in the same university’s undergraduate programs (Gratz). Perhaps most notably, in Grutter, the majority essentially endorsed Justice Powell’s rationale that diversity is a compelling governmental interest, because the Court found it unnecessary to review his perspective. The Court thus concluded that race can be used as a “plus” factor in admissions decisions as long as applicants are subjected to highly individualized, holistic reviews of their credentials.
Darlene Y. Bruner
See also equal protection analysis
Ball, H. (2000). The Bakke case: Race, education, and affirmative action. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
Jeffries, J. C., Jr. (2004). Bakke revisited. Supreme Court Review, 55, 1–21.
Liu, G. (2002). The causation fallacy: Bakke and the basic arithmetic of selective admissions. Michigan Law Review, 100, 1045–1107.
Rosman, M. (2002). Thoughts on Bakke and its effect on race-conscious decision-making. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 2002, 45–71.
Tribe, L. H. (1979). Perspectives on Bakke: Equal protection, procedural fairness, or structural justice? Harvard Law Review, 92, 864–877.
DeFunis v. Odegaard, 416 U.S. 312 (1974), on remand, 514 P.2d 438 (Wash. 1974).
Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003).
Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978).
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d (1964).