National security adviser Condoleezza Rice announced yesterday that she believes race can be used as a factor in college admissions, going beyond President Bush on a central question in his affirmative action policy.
Rice issued a statement saying that she supports the president's decision to challenge race-conscious admissions as administered by the University of Michigan and that race-neutral means are preferable. But she said there are occasions when "it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body."
Bush stopped short of that view in briefs the administration filed Thursday night asking the Supreme Court to overturn an admissions system at the university that gives preferences to minorities. The administration, which limited its legal briefs to the case before the court and made no broad statements about affirmative action, said Michigan officials "cannot justify the express consideration of race in their admissions policy."
Rice's announcement was an unusual case of a member of Bush's inner circle taking a different public stand on a major issue. In a sign of the sensitivity of the issue and her close relationship with Bush, aides reported that the statement was made with his blessing.
Rice's statement came after an article in The Washington Post yesterday in which several White House aides said she had played a crucial role in Bush's deliberations and helped persuade him to publicly oppose Michigan's program. Officials who described her role to The Post noted that it was unusual for her to become such a major factor in an issue that did not involve foreign policy. Their comments had the effect of associating a respected African American adviser to Bush with a decision that has been criticized by many black leaders. Rice reportedly was angry about the article in part because she believed it had been written only because she is black.
Rice, the first black provost of Stanford University before joining the administration, has become so close to the president and first lady Laura Bush that she is often described as a de facto member of the family, spending many of her weekends with them at Camp David.
In the five-sentence statement she issued yesterday, Rice endorsed the thrust of Bush's decision but suggested he had not taken all her advice.
"I agree with the president's position, which emphasizes the need for diversity and recognizes the continued legacy of racial prejudice, and the need to fight it," she said. "I believe that while race-neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body."
It is clear that both agree Michigan's program is flawed, but Rice made a broader statement that there are situations when race-conscious admissions programs might be necessary. Bush has avoided going that far. In remarks on the Michigan case Wednesday, Bush did not directly say whether race could be considered in admissions decisions, although he said schools should seek diversity by looking at "a student's potential and life experiences."
Yesterday, administration officials said they saw no contradiction between Rice's position and Bush's because his briefs were silent on the question of whether race could ever be an appropriate factor in admissions.
"Dr. Rice supports the president's actions in the Michigan case," a senior official said.
In an interview yesterday with American Urban Radio Networks, Rice said she agrees with affirmative action "if it does not lead to quotas and if people work hard at it to look at the total individual."
"It is hard to talk about life experiences or the experiences of an individual without recognizing that race is part of that," she said.
Rice told the radio network she has been "a supporter of affirmative action that is not quota-based and does not seek to make race the only factor."
"I certainly hope that we will get to the day where we do not need to take race into account even as one factor," she said. "I believe that one day we will have educational systems that are preparing everybody."
Rice has had praise for some uses of affirmative action over the years. Stanford released minutes from a 1998 faculty senate meeting in which Rice was quoted as saying that she was "a beneficiary of a Stanford strategy that took affirmative action seriously," pointing to her arrival at Stanford in 1981 as a fellow in the arms control and disarmament program.
Stanford said the number of black faculty members had increased from 36 to 44 when she was provost, from 1993 to 1999.
The liberal group People for the American Way, one of Bush's most persistent critics, issued a news release hailing Rice's views as "very good news" and providing a link to her statement on the White House Web site.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said during Bush's campaign that he hoped the University of Michigan would prevail in the case, and copies of his comments are being used by some university officials to build support for their policies. Powell told WJR-AM in Detroit in September 2000 that he thinks affirmative action "is still necessary."
"I will continue to speak out for it," he said, according to a transcript from Video Monitoring Services of America. "There is a case now pending, of course, with the University of Michigan that I hope the university wins."