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U.Va.'s Affirmative-Action Debate

The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 15, 1999
With No Lawsuit in Sight, U. of Virginia Dives Into the Affirmative-Action Fray

By Peter Schmidt, Charlottesville, VA

Caught up in the middle of the national debate over affirmative action, the University of Virginia's leaders found themselves walking a tenuous line last week.

The institution's Board of Visitors has informally directed President John T. Casteen III to devise alternatives to racial preferences in admissions, out of concern that using preferences leaves the university vulnerable to a discrimination lawsuit.

But many students, faculty members, and administrators on the campus last week were urging the president and the board members to stand by the institution's policy of giving extra consideration to black and Hispanic applicants.

The board's chairman, John P. Ackerly III, said its members value, and wish to preserve, the exceptional level of racial diversity on the campus, where African Americans account for just over 10 per cent of undergraduates. In an interview last week, he said the board, which consists almost entirely of Republican gubernatorial appointees, is not ideologically opposed to affirmative-action policies.

At the same time, however, Mr. Ackerly said the board is anxious to protect the university from the risk of costly litigation. The goal of preserving diversity while de-emphasizing preferences strikes many supporters of affirmative action here as impossible. They worry that the board will end up gutting affirmative-action programs, leading to precipitous drops in the university's black and Hispanic enrollments, and to the destruction of its hard- won reputation as a leading educator of minority students, with the highest black graduation rate of any large public college.

"People here feel that things that they value are seriously under attack," said Karen E. Holt, director of the university's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. "There is a lot of supposition and fear, but I don't know what is going to happen," said Julian Bond, a professor of history at Virginia and chairman of the Board of Directors Of the N.A.A.C.P. He said new limits on affirmative action here would send "a signal to other, similarly situated schools" in Virginia and elsewhere in the South, where affirmative-action programs have been cited as vital to overcoming a history of slavery and segregation.

Mr. Ackerly said that the Board of Visitors will discuss the admissions policy in closed session when it meets this week, but that he did not expect the 16 voting members to take formal action.

Legal and Defensible

Last month, in an address to about 150 students who crowded into the university's Jefferson Hall, Mr. Ackerly said the board was "unanimous in its support of diversity" and believed that the admissions policy "is legal and defensible in court. " He added, however, that the board has a fiduciary duty to carefully weigh the 'costs of mounting such a defense.

"Is it responsible to risk millions of dollars for lawyers' fees and the other costs of an extended federal court case, or would it be better to spend that money on educational programs to achieve diversity in ways that are more securely within the prevailing rule of law'?" he asked.

A coalition of student groups, Advocates for Diversity in Education, staged a teach in and camped out on the university's central Lawn last week to show their support for affirmative action. "Part of this is just to build student awareness of the Board of Visitors and the power they have over our lives," said Deva R. Woodly, a junior who was one of the event's chief organizers.

The Faculty Senate last week unanimously agreed to issue a statement saying: "The consideration of race, as one of many factors for admission to the university, is both appropriate and justified." Several professors and students who oppose the preference policies refused to discuss their views last week. They said a chill had settled over their side of the de- bate as a result of the spectacle of Terence P. Ross, a member of the Board of Visitors, coming under personal attack last month after telling a reporter that the university has lowered its academic standards to recruit black students.

"A lot of people speak out for affirmative action, but everyone is afraid to say anything about equal opportunity. If somebody takes that stand, like Mr. Ross did, they are almost immediately labeled a racist," said Tengku Bahar, a junior who is a photographer for the Cavalier Daily, a student newspaper.

Benjamin P. A. Warthern, who is on the Board of Visitors, said, "I have taken a picture of Terry Ross and posted it on my telephone to remind me to keep my mouth shut." He declined further comment.

President Casteen, who is known as a strong supporter of affirmative action, spent much of last week trying to lower the temperature of the debate. In explaining the board's actions, he noted that recent rulings by the U. S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which includes Virginia, have struck down long-standing racial preferences.

A Gap in SAT Scores

Race actually is among several nonacademic factors considered by admissions officers here, who say they assess applicants individually, and use no formulas. Being a Virginian or an athlete, having a parent who is a graduate of the university, or coming from a rural area of the state can also bolster one's chances ranks of Virginia's Many black the fact that only come under scrutiny.

Race clearly does carry a lot of weight in admissions, however. Data from the university show that, in selecting freshmen for the fall of 1998, officials accepted 56.3 per cent of black applicants and 45.8 per cent of white applicants who were Virginians. Among those from out of state, the university admitted 56.1 per cent of the black applicants and 20.1 per cent of the white applicants. Among those who accepted offers of admission, black students had an average SAT score of 1149, compared 1339 for white students.

University officials have asserted all of those admitted are qualified to be here. They have noted that 87 per cent of the university's black students graduate within six years, a figure only slightly lower than 92 per cent graduation rate for white students. According to data compiled annually by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Virginia graduates a larger share of its black students than does any other Division I public college.

Students Who Excel

"The climate here has been conducive to students' not only surviving, but excelling," said M. Rick Turner, dean of the University's Office of African-American Affairs. Nonetheless, Virginia's admission policies came under the scrutiny of the Board of Visitors in January, when the Center for Individual Rights, a non-profit legal group, published an advertisement in The Cavalier Daily suggesting that the university may be using illegal racial preferences.

Virginia was one of 14 competitive institutions that the center put on notice with the ads (The Chronicle, February 5). To date, none of the 13 others say they have given serious consideration to changing their admissions policies. But the Virginia board concluded that the warning was no empty threat, especially given that the activist center had successfully sued the University of Texas over its affirmative action policies, and has mounted similar challenges to similar policies at the University of Michigan and the University of Washington. Virginia's board set up a panel to review the institution's admissions policies.

Many advocates of affirmative action on the campus complain, however, that the board acted too hastily, especially given that there has been no lawsuit filed against the university.

"I certainly do not believe people should back away from their principles simply because someone comes knocking on the door, who is an outsider, telling them what to do," said Moji E. Olaniyan, a member of the administrative staff of the university's architecture school, and the president of N.A.A.C.P's Charlottesville branch. "If someone threatens to kill you, you don't commit suicide to make their lives easier," she said.

In July, the Board of Visitors, urging that alternatives to preferences be considered, suggested that the university hire more admissions officers to help it recruit minority students, and that it establish a summer program for middle school and high-school students to help local minority children get the academic preparation they need to someday be admitted here.

Mr. Turner last week denounced the summer-camp proposal as "simplistic," "paternalistic," and "an insult to the African-American community." "You're not going to attract University of Virginia-caliber students through a summer program," he said. "There are not enough summers to make up for two-and-a-half centuries of slavery."