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Letter to the University Community on Equal Opportunity in Admissions

John T. Casteen III
September 30, 1999

The debate about the University's admissions procedures may have come to the point of generating more heat than light, but the issues are complex and important enough to make me think that this additional statement is necessary. The issues are easy to misunderstand or misrepresent. Few people really understand admissions well; yet many care deeply about admissions. This letter is an attempt to bring the community back together in a dialogue about one of our most serious concerns.

Some news accounts give the impression that there are only two sides to the question of how to achieve diversity and that these two sides are intractably opposed. The good news is that this is not the case. Perhaps the bad news is that there are many more than two sides, and that we are at risk of losing our grasp of the whole situation. My experience has been that students, faculty and staff members, and members of our several boards, including the Board of Visitors, believe that the University must enroll students who are broadly representative of the state and the nation. Sustaining diversity was one of the Board's consensus goals at its planning retreat in July.

The controversy is not about this goal. It is about how to achieve the goal in a manner concordant with the law — a topic that few people outside the Admissions Office can justly claim to understand, and one that probably needs to be understood if this discussion is to produce consensus rather than fragmentation. Recent court decisions, none definitive but all suggestive of the evolving politics of the judiciary; the necessary isolation from detailed public scrutiny of selections that involve applicants' personal information; and each discussant's personal interest — these elements of the debate perhaps get in the way of genuine understanding.

I have a personal stake in this debate. I was dean of admission here in the years when minority, especially African-American, students began to come in large numbers and when their success began to attract national notice. Partly because of this experience, I believe in opening opportunity to students of diverse backgrounds — perhaps especially to those whom Virginia excluded by law for more than 125 years. I think other community members, certainly including the Board, share this belief.

History and morality have stakes as well. Alongside other Virginia colleges and universities, we have worked over the years to remedy the brutal and specific costs (to students, to the state's moral character, to communities) of Virginia's history of racial segregation and especially the costs of Virginia's "Massive Resistance" to U.S. law. Much of today's problem derives from Virginia's refusal to desegregate its schools under orders of the U.S. Supreme Court and its decision instead to seize and close local schools (including Charlottesville's — schools that altogether enrolled roughly 17% of the state's children at the time) to keep black students out of white classrooms. These things said, my purpose today is to state for the record how we go about making the University of Virginia reflect and predict the character of the community it serves.

First, the University operates within the rule of law. The Office of Admission adheres to this rule. The problem: No one is confident now what the law is. Various legal precedents apply, among them commitments made by Virginia's governors and legislature to remedy the damage done by de jure segregation and the Supreme Court's decision in the Bakke case (1978), which people generally understand as defining how universities may go about assuring diversity in their student bodies. Neither precedent offers much comfort to anyone in this debate. The Adams case (1969), under which Virginia committed to provide remedies for its history of excluding black students from white colleges, is no longer in the courts, and the most recent related case excluded the use of scholarships to attract minority students to the University of Maryland. So far as I can tell, the courts have abandoned the Adams requirement for remedies and have left universities with no guidance on what they ought to do, must do, or can do. Bakke remains in place as a national rule, but the Hopwood decision sets it aside as precedent in the Fifth Circuit and leaves our lawyers and Board with no clear rule of law for our own Fourth Circuit. Current litigation in California and Michigan may eventually generate clear rules, but we do not have those rules now.

Second, the University has never decided admissions cases solely on the basis of race or on any other single factor. Because the state of Virginia systematically rejected affirmative action (quotas, deadlines) as the rule in its Adams plans and instead pledged equal opportunity (goals, timetables), we have never had quotas for any group of people — black, white, Hispanic, Asian. The representation of diverse ethnic groups in the entering class varies from year to year, depending on who applies and who qualifies and how the Admissions Committee builds the class student by student. We have never published or used cut-off scores for SAT scores, specific grades, or any other quantitative indicator. Selections have never been numerically driven. The goal has been and remains to understand each applicant in the context of her or his origins, experiences, academic preparation, capacity to contribute here, and demonstrated capacity to do the work required to graduate on time, on track.

The student body demonstrates the integrity of this process. It is well rounded, diverse, and remarkably competent. So far as I know, no statistical or other evidence supports the notion that any defined group of our students is unqualified to be here, fails to perform, fails to contribute, fails to graduate on time, on track, or fails to achieve after graduation.

Third, the argument about "using race" adds little to the discussion. It reflects little comprehension of how the class is built or of the complex science on which the SAT and other credentials are built, normed, validated, and related to success here. We do not build from the top (the highest SAT score or high school average or whatever) down. Rather, we build with constant attention to the qualities desired in the class. Virginia status, experience of adversity or challenge, being a recruited athlete or the child of a graduate or someone recommended as having special talents — these very different characteristics (and others) necessarily influence the committee's reasoning. I wrote last spring that zip codes, parental income, and other sorting devices that have no rightful place in the process are better predictors of SAT scores and other quantitative indicators than are race or determination to succeed or personal integrity. That's true. It is also disgraceful. It reflects the reality that 40 years after desegregation the Virginia child most likely to attend an under-funded public school and least likely to encounter the AP courses and rigorous programs that prepare students to come here is an African-American child. And that child's parents and grandparents faced very much the same realities in their own schools.

A student body selected on the numbers alone would be largely out of state. Its in-state members would come predominantly from a handful of school districts in the most affluent regions of the state, indeed from the most affluent neighborhoods in those regions. Most students' parents would have post-baccalaureate degrees. Remarkable numbers of the students would have done things we might all like our own children to do — have had piano lessons as children, played soccer in high school, have gone to summer camp, have visited Europe, perhaps have had several personal computers at home, have relaxed in large grassy backyards, have driven their own cars. Most would be white, native speakers of English, who did well in all subjects. We might still claim to have well-rounded students, but we would probably not have a well-rounded student body with diverse talents, interests, and aspirations. On the extreme end of a spectrum, we might all have the same conversation, value the same achievements, think the same way.

Instead, the student body is made up of students whose families came to this country from Europe, Asia, Asia Minor, Africa, Central and South America, from the Caribbean islands. We have athletes, artists, musicians, writers, and actors, people interested in government. And all of them, all of them, measure up as students. Yes, there is a disparity between the SAT scores of white and black students, but one well below the 1.96 standard deviations that define a statistically significant difference. And yes, the graduation rates for white and black students are about the same. All of our students, black, white, athlete, non-athlete, Greek, non-Greek, Asian, Native American, children of alumni and children of parents who never saw a college classroom, students from all regions of the state, the country and the world, graduate at essentially the same rate — between 87% and 92%. And that is a rate equaled by no other public university and by no more than a dozen or so private universities. When one compares apples and apples, no other student body even comes close.

The admissions system has worked well since it was first developed in the early 1960s. As all management systems do, it needs regular attention, and it gets that attention. At the Board's initiative, we are designing a summer program that will engage students from middle school through high school — a strategy that works and works well. And the Office of Admission has new resources for recruiting and for staff — improvements for now that could become essential if the Supreme Court replaces the Bakke rule with a new rule that makes it harder to maintain diversity. We believe that the admissions system is legally defensible. Other institutions continue to make inquiries about how we do it. As recently as yesterday, I heard that question from the board chair of another institution.

People (students and faculty) come here partly because we believe in open discourse. In this place created to foster tolerance and cultivate reason, no one is denied the pulpit. Sometimes the debate is elegant and heady. Sometimes it may not be. Either way, debate pushes us to see issues at their extremes, and to find consensus by the hard process of honest difference. Our common purpose — Board members and faculty, students and alumni — must be and is to sustain learning within a community that cherishes equity and excellence. I believe that we all understand this, and that we agree. It is time to redefine the common ground so that we can get back to the business of identifying, recruiting, admitting, enrolling, teaching, and eventually graduating students at least as diverse in background, talent, and promise as the ones we now know and treasure.

Finally, a personal note. I know many of the participants in this debate, and obviously I know the Board of Visitors, and I value them — all of them. Regardless of whatever differences may arise, these are people of good will and good sense. On one of the hardest topics confronting our society today and in the face of what has become a scandalous lack of clarity in the law, they are working to find ways to support equity and excellence here. People may disagree on various topics, but disagreement is not news. We agree on the essential values. The Board members and others who participate in this discussion have serious responsibilities, including the responsibility to listen carefully to others' opinions and to respect difference as well as concurrence. Let us conduct the discourse with the intention of generating more light and less heat.

This is a debate about what we are as a community and what we will be, about how we fulfill the most idealistic and most essential mission in all of American education. It deserves to be conducted in the open, with dignity and decency, and with determination. It cannot be conducted by means of personal attacks or by means of casual generalizations that dehumanize others. And it deserves to be driven by compassion, by awareness of moral responsibility, and by optimism about the young.

John T. Casteen III, President