The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke

The Landmark Ruling That Put a Halt to Racial Quotas on College Campuses

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The Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke (1978), was a landmark case decided by the United States Supreme Court. The decision had historical and legal significance because it upheld affirmative action, declaring that race could be one of several determining factors in college admission policies, but rejected the use of racial quotas.

Fast Facts: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke

  • Case Argued: Oct. 12, 1977
  • Decision Issued: June 26, 1978
  • Petitioner: Regents of the University of California
  • Respondent: Allan Bakke, a 35-year-old white man who had applied twice for admission to the University of California Medical School at Davis and was rejected both times
  • Key Question: Did the University of California violate the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by practicing an affirmative action policy that resulted in the repeated rejection of Bakke's application for admission to its medical school?
  • Majority Decision: Justices Burger, Brennan, Stewart, Marshall, Blackman, Powell, Rehnquist, Stevens
  • Dissenting: Justice White
  • Ruling: The Supreme Court upheld affirmative action, ruling that race could be one of several determining factors in college admission policies, but it rejected the use of racial quotas as unconstitutional.

Case History

In the early 1970s, many colleges and universities across America were in the beginning stages of making major changes to their admissions programs in an effort to diversify the student body by increasing the number of minority students on campus. This effort was particularly challenging due to the 1970s massive increase of students applying to medical and law schools. It increased the competition and negatively impacted the efforts to create campus environments that promoted equality and diversity.

Admission policies that relied predominantly on candidates' grades and test scores was an unrealistic approach for the schools that wanted to increase the minority population on campus. 

Dual Admission Programs

In 1970, the University of California Davis School of Medicine (UCD) was receiving 3,700 applicants for a mere 100 openings. At the same time, UCD administrators were committed to working with an affirmative action plan often referred to as a quota or set-aside program.

It was set up with two admissions programs in order to increase the number of disadvantaged students admitted to the school. There was the regular admissions program and the special admissions program.
Each year 16 out of 100 places were reserved for disadvantaged students and minorities including (as stated by the university), "blacks," "Chicanos," "Asians," and "American Indians."

Regular Admissions Program

Candidates who quailed for the regular admissions program had to have an undergraduate grade point average (GPA) above 2.5. Some of the qualifying candidates were then interviewed. Those who passed were given a score based on their performance on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), science grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations, awards and other criteria that made up their benchmark scores. An admissions committee would then make a decision on which candidates would be accepted into the school.

Special Admissions Program

Candidates accepted into the special admissions programs were minorities or those who were economically or educationally disadvantaged. The special admissions candidates did not have to have a grade point average above 2.5 and they did not compete with the benchmark scores of the regular admission applicants. 

From the time that the dual admissions program was implemented the 16 reserved spots were filled by minorities, despite the fact that many white applicants applied for the special disadvantaged program.

Allan Bakke

In 1972, Allan Bakke was a 32-year-old white male working as an engineer at NASA, when he decided to pursue his interest in medicine. Ten years earlier, Bakke had graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in mechanical engineering and a grade-point average of 3.51 out of 4.0 and was asked to join the national mechanical engineering honor society.

He then joined the U.S. Marine Corps for four years which included a seven-month combat tour of duty in Vietnam. In 1967, he became a captain and was given an honorable discharge. After leaving the Marines he went to work for National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) as a research engineer. 

Bakke continued going to school and in June 1970, he earned his master's degree in mechanical engineering, but despite this, his interest in medicine continued to grow.

He was missing some of chemistry and biology courses required for admission into medical school so he attended night classes at San Jose State University and Stanford University. He completed all the prerequisites and had an overall GPA of 3.46.

During this time he worked part-time as a volunteer in the emergency room at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, California.

He scored an overall 72 on the MCAT, which was three points higher than the average applicant to UCD and 39 points higher than the average special program applicant.

In 1972, Bakke applied to UCD. His biggest concern was being rejected due to his age. He had surveyed 11 medical schools; all who said that he was over their their age limit. Age discrimination was not an issue in the 1970s.

In March he was invited to interview with Dr. Theodore West who described Bakke as a very desirable applicant who he recommended. Two months later, Bakke received his rejection letter.

Angered by how the special admissions program was being managed, Bakke contacted his lawyer, Reynold H. Colvin, who prepared a letter for Bakke to give to the medical school's chairman of the admissions committee, Dr. George Lowrey. The letter, which was sent in late May, included a request that Bakke was placed on the wait-list and that he could register during the fall of 1973 and take courses until an opening became available.

When Lowrey failed to reply, Covin prepared a second letter in which he asked the chairman if the special admissions program was an illegal racial quota.

Bakke was then invited to meet with Lowrey's assistant, 34-year-old Peter Storandt so that the two could discuss why he was rejected from the program and to advise him to apply again. He suggested that if he was rejected again he may want to take UCD to court; Storandt had a few names of lawyers that could possibly help him if he decided to go in that direction. Storandt was later disciplined and demoted for displaying unprofessional behavior when meeting with Bakke.

In August 1973, Bakke applied for early admission into UCD. During the interview process, Lowery was the second interviewer. He gave Bakke an 86 which was the lowest score Lowery had given out that year.

Bakke received his second rejection letter from UCD at the end of September 1973.

The following month, Colvin filed a complaint on Bakke's behalf with HEW's Office of Civil Rights, but when HEW failed to send a timely response, Bakke decided to move forward. On June 20, 1974, Colvin brought suit on behalf of Bakke in Yolo County Superior Court.

The complaint included a request that UCD admit Bakke into its program because the special admission's program rejected him because of his race. Bakke alleged that the special admissions process violated the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment, the California Constitution's article I, section 21, and Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

UCD's counsel filed a cross-declaration and asked the judge to find that the special program was constitutional and legal. They argued that Bakke would not have been admitted even if there had been no seats set aside for minorities. 

On November 20, 1974, Judge Manker found the program unconstitutional and in violation of Title VI, "no race or ethnic group should ever be granted privileges or immunities not given to every other race."

Manker did not order to admit Bakke to UCD, but rather that the school reconsiders his application under a system that did not make determinations based on race.

Both Bakke and the university appealed the judge's ruling. Bakke because it was not ordered that he be admitted to UCD and the university because the special admission's program was ruled unconstitutional. 

Supreme Court of California

Due to the seriousness of the case, the Supreme Court of California ordered that the appeals be transferred to it. Having gained a reputation as being one of the most liberal appellate courts, it was assumed by many that it would rule on the side of the university. Surprisingly, the court upheld the lower-court ruling in a six to one vote.

Justice Stanley Mosk wrote, "No applicant may be rejected because of his race, in favor of another who is less qualified, as measured by standards applied without regard to race". 

The lone dissenter, Justice Matthew O. Tobriner wrote, "It is anomalous that the Fourteenth Amendment that served as the basis for the requirement that elementary and secondary schools be 'compelled' to integrate should now be turned around to forbid graduate schools from voluntarily seeking that very objective."

The court ruled that the university could no longer use race in the admissions process. It ordered that the university provide proof that Bakke's application would have been rejected under a program that was not based on race. When the university admitted that it would be unable to provide the proof, the ruling was amended to order Bakke's admission into the medical school. 

That order, however, was stayed by U.S. Supreme Court in November 1976, pending the outcome of the petition for a writ of certiorari to be filed by the Regents of the University of California to the U.S. Supreme Court. The university filed a petition for writ of certiorari the following month. 

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Montaldo, Charles. "The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Montaldo, Charles. (2020, August 27). The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Retrieved from Montaldo, Charles. "The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).