Certain state courts call affirmative action illegal

by Amit Anand | 5/24/00 5:00am

While the World Cultures Initiative aims to create a diversified atmosphere at the College that will cater to all students, public and private universities alike have been trying in recent years to diversify their campuses directly through affirmative action admissions processes.

But recent trends are indicating that the open use of affirmative action may be increasingly dismissed as illegal.

As the Board of Regents voted to adopt Governor Jeb Bush's "One Florida" plan last February, Florida joined many large states, including California and Texas, which have eliminated the consideration of race and ethnicity as factors in the college admissions process. The vote was soon followed by a lawsuit from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which contends that the board has no authority to make such sweeping changes.

While students have participated in numerous protests against the initiative, many academic institutions have been hesitant to resist it.

The University of Michigan's law school is currently facing a lawsuit filed by the Center for Individual Rights, challenging its affirmative action admissions process. The plaintiff is the same organization that placed full-page advertisements in The Dartmouth last year, accusing "nearly every elite college in America" of using affirmative action in their admissions policies.

The University of Michigan is adamantly maintaining its current policies, citing that affirmative action increases academic diversity. Florida, on the other hand, falls in the camp that is relatively non-resistant.

"Even though some states like Michigan have decided to fight, the folks here in Florida have decided to accept it instead of having a state-wide referendum," Vice-President of Student Affairs at the University of Florida Jim Scott told The Dartmouth.

The adoption of "One Florida" is part of a nationwide trend in which public academic institutions are being forced to reconsider the use of race and ethnicity as admissions criteria -- a practice commonly known as affirmative action. As the debate about affirmative action continues, academics and non-academics alike are taking sides and trying to gain support for their positions.

In a survey compiled by the Foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition last month, 86 percent of 1,004 randomly selected college students said "fairness in meeting academic standards is more important in admissions decisions than achieving ethnic diversity." At the same time, 84 percent of students indicated that diversity on campus was important to them.

Colleges and universities nationwide have been scrambling to find a solution to this seemingly paradoxical situation -- how to maintain, or even increase, diversity on campus while not using race or ethnicity as admission factors.

The University of California system, for example, noted significant decreases in its African-American and Hispanic enrollment in the years following the 1996 passage of Proposition 209, which prohibited public institutions in California from granting "preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin."

According the UCLA Daily Bruin, minority admissions numbers dropped by 33 percent since the proposition passed. Only this year have the numbers started to improve, with many schools in the University of California system showing improvements in the number of admitted minority students.

In 1996 -- the same year as the passage of Proposition 209 -- the Hopwood decision in Texas effectively eliminated affirmative action at schools such as the University of Texas, whose law school saw the number of its African-American and Hispanic students drop dramatically that year. The number of African-American students dropped from 31 to four. The plaintiffs in that case included the Center for Individual Rights, the same organization that is suing the University of Michigan.

In view of the drop in minority enrollments at schools like the University of California, administrators at the University of Florida are looking for innovative ways to attract a diverse applicant pool. "We felt, after some initial analysis, that if we were to not consider race and ethnicity in the admissions process, the numbers of African-American and Hispanic students who apply would drop," Scott said. "We have met with [administrators] from the University of Texas, UCLA and UC-Berkeley because those schools experienced something similar."

Scott said the University of Florida has changed its admissions process significantly to account for the effects of the recent ruling. The school has added two essays and a personal achievement section to its application, which "will give us more information on students -- their backgrounds, experiences, leadership abilities, et cetera," Scott said. He added that a greater emphasis will be placed on outreach to minorities.

Recent increases in the number of admitted minority students at schools in California and Texas may indicate that some of the outreach programs have been successful. The University of Texas, for example, has been setting up information centers in inner cities neighborhoods to inform students of campus opportunities.

Even as affirmative action statutes have begun to fall, the debate over its existence is certainly not resolved.

Ward Connerly, a member of the UC Board of Regents, has been one of the main proponents of ending affirmative action. Last month, Connerly gave a speech at Brown University, saying that an African-American must not automatically be assumed as being disadvantaged. Alluding to the current admissions statistics, he said the issue of affirmative action in the admissions process did not have drastic effects on the university.

But UC Regent William Bagley has indicated he will propose legislation that would repeal the ban on affirmative action at the University of California. In an interview with The Daily Californian, he said, "We want to get the university out of the vortex. It would pull the rug out from under one Ward Connerly. Connerly appears all over the country as representing the board of regents."

Bagley has publicly argued that the ban on affirmative action creates a negative image, which in turn causes under-represented minorities to look elsewhere.

Student protests have also continued at schools like the University of California and the University of Texas. In February, 16 law students at UCLA were arrested after protesting and demanding a response from the dean of the UCLA law school. Last year's class had two African-American students.

While affirmative action policies such as Proposition 209 or "One Florida" only affect public institutions that get state funding, the issue has come up at many private colleges and universities. A protest held at the University of Pennsylvania in February drew more than 200 graduate students.

At Dartmouth, race and ethnicity are not considered as separate categories, but are taken into account in the context of an applicant's profile. However, an applicant from a certain race or ethnicity does not automatically get extra points, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Karl Furstenberg told The Dartmouth in a previous interview.

Although it has been a hot topic on campuses for many years, it has received institutional support from the College. In 1995, then-acting President James Wright said, "It is my conviction that affirmative action in admissions is an opportunity, one that has enriched all of us immeasurably."

Wright has reaffirmed his stance on admissions diversity since he became president of the College.

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