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Colleges Retool Outreach Efforts As Affirmative Action Changes

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First of two parts

Molly Broad began her tenure as the president of the University of North Carolina last summer hoping to shape up the system's race-based programs before the courts beat her to it.

In November, she asked the chancellors at each of the university's 16 campuses to evaluate and, where necessary, change questionable affirmative action and race-based programs to ensure that they won't topple if hit with legal challenges. Already, some campuses have opened up race-based scholarship programs to all applicants, and have expanded support programs once exclusively geared to African-American students.

But even as university officials make their adjustments, the UNC president is watching her back for a lawsuit.

As a respected institution and the nation's oldest public university system, "we are on the target list," Ms. Broad said. "My greatest concern is that before we complete the updating of our programs, we'll end up in court."

Reacting to widespread public and legal sentiment challenging affirmative action policies, several state college systems, even some not facing lawsuits, are scaling back their race-based programs while exploring other options for maintaining or increasing the racial and ethnic diversity of their enrollments. Just how these systems and others change holds implications for high schools nationwide.

The challenge for high school students and counselors is to fight the perception that colleges no longer want to admit students with wide-ranging backgrounds, said Sharon Alston, the vice president for human relations at the Washington-based National Association for College Admission Counseling, and a college counselor at the Bullis School, a private, 3-12 school in Potomac, Md.

"Colleges need to be more vocal and outspoken about what they're doing to keep campuses diverse," Ms. Alston said in a recent interview. "It would be the biggest shame if kids become discouraged from even trying. "

"I don't see colleges backing away from their commitment to having a diverse student body," she observed. "I do see them identifying other means to achieve that end. It's going to be an uphill struggle."

But Clarence Mallett, a career-technical counselor at Sterling High School in Houston, says that by pulling back race-based programs colleges will make it harder for high school counselors to help "late bloomers" pursue their postsecondary options. Colleges and universities have responded to legal demands, he said, but they haven't made an overall commitment to diversity.

Bakke and Beyond

Like most other higher education institutions, the 154,000-student University of North Carolina system still considers the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke its legal precedent in matters of affirmative action.

In Bakke, a white student denied admission to the medical school at the University of California, Davis, sued the university, claiming its admissions policy violated equal-protection guarantees in the U.S. Constitution by reserving a specific number of seats for minority students. The justices ultimately decided that, while schools could not establish separate admissions criteria for minority students, race could be considered a "plus" factor in an applicant's file. That "plus" ruling served as the foundation for many university affirmative action programs.

The legal winds shifted again in March 1996, however, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit essentially contradicted Bakke with a ruling in Hopwood v. State of Texas prohibiting consideration of race in admissions and financial-aid decisions. The 5th Circuit panel said Bakke had been invalidated by more recent high court rulings limiting affirmative action in government contracting. The Supreme Court later refused to review the Hopwood case, and the 5th Circuit ruling is legally binding only in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi--the states within the appeals court's jurisdiction. But the decision, bolstered by other recent anti-affirmative-action lawsuits in states such as Michigan and Washington and a 1996 California ballot measure that banned most racial preferences there, has forced public universities nationally to take a second look at how and where they give racial preferences.

Just last week, the U.S. Supreme Court passed up another possible affirmative action test, Farmer v. University and Community College System of Nevada (97-1104). In Farmer, a white professor claimed that racial bias was a factor in the University of Nevada's decision to hire a less qualified black job candidate instead of her.

"Universities need to adapt to the changing legal landscape," said Mark Rotenberg, the legal counsel for the University of Minnesota system, which will likely soon change a recruitment program that allows minority students from out of state to pay in-state tuition.

The Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, the conservative public-interest law firm that championed the Hopwood lawsuit and other challenges to affirmative action now pending in other states, will no doubt keep the heat on schools, said Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education, a Washington umbrella group representing colleges and universities.

"They are going about it very aggressively," Mr. Wilson said. "One can expect they will win, too, because of the plethora of conservative judges sitting in appellate courts. Colleges and universities are seeing the handwriting on the wall."

The CIR's aim is not to make it more difficult for minority students to attend college, but rather to uphold the Constitution and "get out of the race business all together," said Terry Pell, a spokesman for the center. "The Constitution selects race as one category you can't use to make decisions," he said, "no matter how well-intentioned or how lofty your goals may be."

Politically, anti-affirmative-action efforts are no longer limited to California--where, in 1996, voters passed Proposition 209, a ballot initiative banning most racial and gender preferences in public school admissions and government hiring and contracting. ("Anti-Preference Measure Sparks Competing Suits," Nov. 13, 1996.)

Political Battlegrounds

Lawmakers in 12 other states are now considering similar measures, and this spring U.S. Rep. Charles T. Canady, R-Fla., will try for the third time in two years to end affirmative action in federally funded programs, including school spending that targets minority groups.

But 1998's biggest battleground is Washington state. It is the only state where an anti-preference initiative has qualified for the November ballot.

Washington state Rep. Scott Smith, a Republican who is a leader of the initiative campaign, has for the past four years sponsored legislation to bar race and gender preferences. He said he was called "every name in the book" when he sponsored his first bill. "The attitude was violent," he recalled in an interview. "It was a new conversation."

Now, Mr. Smith predicts broad voter support for the initiative. He acknowledges that minority acceptance rates in state colleges may drop if the plan passes, but argues that such a drop would be reversed by students' working harder to get into college.

Not everyone is of an anti-affirmative-action mind, however. Voters in Houston rejected an anti-preference bill there last November, 55 percent to 45 percent. And an initiative drive in Florida last year died largely because the state's GOP leaders failed to get behind the plan. Now, the Sunshine State's Constitutional Revision Commission is considering a proposal to provide constitutional protection for state affirmative action programs.

Capital Action

Meanwhile, some state legislators are pondering new ways to raise admission rates for minority students.

For example, in 1997, a year after the 5th Circuit court's ruling in Hopwood, Texas lawmakers passed a measure that guarantees admission to state colleges for the top 10 percent of each high school's graduates.

California and Georgia lawmakers are considering similar legislation.

The Texas law, which goes into effect next fall, goes even further. It requires universities to give special consideration to family economic history and educational background for an unspecified percentage of applicants who might not make the cut based on test scores and GPA.

"We are reaching out as quickly as possible with something and saying, 'We're not closing the doors on you,'" said Democratic state Rep. Irma Rangel, who sponsored the legislation. "We have to obey the law, but this is not going to prevent your being admitted to universities. We don't care whether you're black, brown, or whatever."

It's too early to say how the program will work. But college officials believe it's a "moral imperative" to raise minority admissions, said Teri E. Flack, the spokeswoman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

"The fear is that we haven't done a good job in the past," she said, "and we may do a worse job in the future."

Despite such efforts, minority admissions plummeted at several high-profile schools following the Hopwood ruling, the adoption of Proposition 209, and an earlier University of California regents decision that banned racial and gender preferences in admissions and financial aid.

The 1,500-student law school at the University of Texas at Austin enrolled only four black students in the 1997-98 academic year--down from 29 the year before. In California, the news was equally bad. The 820-student Boalt Hall law school at the University of California, Berkeley, enrolled only one black student in the fall of 1997--down from 20 in 1996. At the same time, the number of African-American graduate students at uc dropped to 1,170 from 1,303 while the number of Chicano--Mexican descent--and Latino graduate students dropped to 1,469 from 1,576 and 1,005 from 1,068, respectively. Total graduate student enrollment in the uc system rose from 35,453 to 35,936.

But colleges are not giving up on diversity.

By switching to an admissions system that places less emphasis on standardized-test scores and weighs essays and personal achievement more heavily, the University of Texas at Austin, for example, was able to maintain its fall 1997 enrollment of undergraduate minority students. But the school could not avoid plummeting minority enrollments during the summer, when it opened up a summer enrichment program once exclusively designed for minorities. Subsequently, the total number of freshman Hispanic summer and fall enrollees at the 37,000-student university dropped to 892 in 1997 from 932 in 1996. The number of African-American freshmen dropped to 191 from 266.

Redesigning Admissions

Still, "the admissions process we have in place now is a much better process," said Augustine Garza, the deputy director of admissions at UT Austin. "Given all of the negative perceptions and things that were said about Hopwood, we're very pleased."

Financial aid officers at UT Austin also redesigned a scholarship program once geared to high-achieving black and Hispanic students into one that grants awards to students of all races who have succeeded in spite of adversity. Although the new program is designed to be race-neutral, it still awarded 80 percent of its 429 awards of $1,000 to $5,000 a year to black and Hispanic incoming freshmen last fall.

By using a database to weigh variables such as the academic standing of a student's high school, household income, and the student's SAT scores in comparison with the average SAT score in his or her high school, financial-aid officers can home in on students who have succeeded despite obstacles and offer them scholarships.

"We're still interested in having a diverse freshman class, but you can't build the class looking at ethnicity," said Lawrence Burt, the director of financial aid at UT Austin. "If you look for someone who's overcome adversity by the standards we created, you're more likely to find minority students."

But college officials must be careful not to be too calculated as they rework policies to maintain diversity, Mr. Pell of the Center for Individual Rights said.

Expanding admissions and scholarship criteria is laudable, he said, "but where schools are simply trying to gerrymander admissions policies to get a preordained result, they're inviting a lawsuit."

Campus Debate

At the University of North Carolina, President Broad's call for a review of race-based programs has students debating the merits of affirmative action as it works on the university's campuses.

Headlines of a recent edition of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper for the system's flagship campus at Chapel Hill, described student support and protest following a campus speech by Alveda King, a niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr. and a strong opponent of affirmative action. And last month, when the campus elected its first African-American woman as student-body president, her long-standing support for preserving affirmative action programs was crucial to her victory, said Matt Ezzell, a junior who helped found a pro-affirmative action student group.

Many students feel that by reining in successful programs just as the school is less than one percentage point away from achieving its long-desired racial-diversity goal of 10.6 percent black student presence on its historically white campuses, UNC officials are "jumping the gun," said India Williams, the president of the Black Student Movement, a student organization representing African-American interests.

"It's like they're throwing up the white flag," Ms. Williams contended. "They don't want to get caught up in legal trouble, but you don't get rid of quality programs out of fear they'll come under fire."

But Ms. Broad says UNC campuses are reworking potentially contentious programs to preserve diversity over the long haul. Court-imposed changes would cut much deeper than the university's own closed-door maneuvering, she argues.

If the consequences of legal challenge were moderate, "that would be one thing," Ms. Broad said. "But look at some of the consequences. I take the pragmatic view that you keep your eye on the ball and make adjustments so you can continue to reach the goal."

At Chapel Hill, the Pogue Scholars program, which has traditionally given scholarships to high-achieving minority students, was recently altered. UNC officials hope the initiative "still recruits top minority students from North Carolina, but uses race as one of many factors," said Catherine Loftin, the assistant director for academic scholarships at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Last year, the first since UNC implemented the changes, the program granted $6,750 scholarships--enough to cover most tuition and living expenses--to 16 blacks, seven whites, three Asian-Americans, and one American Indian student.

Expanding the program hasn't been easy. "We've had to work harder," Ms. Loftin said. School officials now examine materials more closely, looking for evidence of leadership and community involvement.

For colleges and universities willing to do the work, taking the time to carefully craft newer, broader policies is worth the effort, Mr. Wilson of the American Council on Education says. As affirmative action programs unravel and minority enrollments drop, "some people will say, 'So be it,'" Mr. Wilson said. "But others will say, 'This country is made up of 25 percent minorities and growing every day--what are we going to do about our people?'"

Next week: How high schools and colleges are intensifying efforts to prepare disadvantaged students for higher education.

Web Only

Web Resources
  • The Tarlton Law Library at the University of Texas maintains a database of information about the Hopwood case that includes the text of the U.S. District Court decision and the U.S. Supreme Court's denial of certiorari.
  • Californians Against Discrimination and Preferences, the group which backed Proposition 209 posts regular updates on the effects of the initiative on its Web site.
  • Read the text of Proposition 209 from the CADP Web site.
  • The group California Votes 'No' on 209 was formed to fight the passage of the ballot initiative. It is now "is now dedicated to reversing Proposition 209."
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