Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the Bush administration's highest-ranking African American, said Sunday that he disagreed with the president's decision urging the Supreme Court to strike down affirmative action admissions policies at the University of Michigan.
"I am a strong proponent of affirmative action," Powell said in a pair of TV interviews. "I believe race should be a factor [in college admissions]. I thought the University of Michigan had a strong case."
Powell joined national security advisor Condoleezza Rice in publicly distancing himself from President Bush's stand on affirmative action.
Last week, Bush spoke out against college admissions policies that "unfairly reward or penalize prospective students based solely on their race."
Later on Sunday, the White House announced a proposed 5% increase in federal funding for grants to historically black colleges, universities and graduate programs and to institutions with a Latino enrollment of at least 25%.
The White House did not say why the grant programs were acceptable and the Michigan admissions policy was not.
In briefs filed Thursday, Bush's lawyers urged the high court to strike down the Michigan affirmative action policy as a "disguised quota" and all but outlaw future use of "race-based" policies.
The Constitution's "equal protection clause outlaws quotas under any circumstances and forbids the government from employing race-based policies when race-neutral alternatives are available," wrote Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson.
"In light of the ample race-neutral alternatives, [the university] cannot as a matter of law justify racial discrimination in admissions."
But Powell questioned the notion that significant diversity could be achieved without using race in the admissions process.
"I wish it was possible for everything to be race-neutral in this country, but I'm afraid we're not yet at that point where things are race-neutral," he said on CNN's "Late Edition."
He also addressed the issue on CBS' "Face the Nation." While saying he supported the Michigan policy, he said he understood why Bush opposed it.
"The president, in looking at it, came to the conclusion it was constitutionally flawed ... and I understand that," Powell said.
On Friday, Rice also distanced herself somewhat from the president's position, saying she believed it "is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body."
She said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that she had been a beneficiary of diversity policies when she was hired to teach at Stanford University.
The difference of opinion between Powell and Bush goes to the heart of the dispute before the Supreme Court.
Lawyers for the rejected white applicants who sued the University of Michigan have urged the court to outlaw the use of "racial preferences" in college admissions.
The university's lawyers -- relying on the Bakke decision of 1978, which struck down quotas but upheld the use of race as a factor in admissions -- say schools can consider a minority student's race as a "plus" factor in the admissions process, so long as no fixed quota is adopted.
Undergraduate admissions at Michigan are based on a point system. The campus at Ann Arbor gives 20 points to applicants who are black, Mexican American or Native American.
By contrast, students with perfect SAT scores get 12 points.
In a footnote to its brief, the Bush administration questioned whether former Justice Lewis F. Powell's oft-quoted opinion in the Bakke case was a "binding precedent," since he spoke for himself alone in those key passages.
Without resolving the matter, the brief largely ignores the Bakke decision and urges the court to take a hard line against any use of "race-based" admissions policies.