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Texas Returns to Affirmative Action
Readjustment and confusion in the aftermath of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions

By Carl Irving
Austin, Texas

The University of Texas' flagship campus here plans to restore affirmative action in undergraduate admissions in the fall of 2005, using guidelines the campus administration believes to be consistent with last summer's 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Photo By Jana Birchum, Black Star, For CrossTalk)
This year's freshman class at the University of Texas-Austin is 16 percent Hispanic, four percent African American. Returning to affirmative action should increase those numbers.
 

To support this change, the admissions office has gathered evidence that white students dominate most smaller, discussion-sized classes, which have few if any African American or Hispanic students.

A recent month-long survey of 3,600 current undergraduate classes, each with five to 24 students enrolled, found that 90 percent had one or no African Americans, and 43 percent had one or no Hispanics. Less than two percent of the classes had one or no whites, who are expected to become a minority of the state's population next year.

UT-Austin officials believe this discovery vividly illustrates a problem that the Supreme Court majority wants the nation's campuses to address-the lack of a "critical mass" of underrepresented minority students, enough so that they "do not feel isolated or like spokespersons for their race."

The decision agreed with challenges to University of Michigan undergraduate admissions policies, which had involved racial quotas. But in directly addressing the issue of affirmative action in higher education admissions for the first time in 25 years, the court said racial and ethnic backgrounds for underrepresented minorities could be used as one positive factor among others in deciding which students to admit.

"The court itself didn't define 'critical mass' but it means having more than one student (in a class)," said UT-Austin Director of Admissions and Vice Provost Bruce Walker. But he added, "We won't return to the affirmative action of 1996, because [selecting students] has to be individualized."

The court's ruling means seeking "a robust exchange of ideas" and "more spirited discussions," in classes small enough to allow this, said campus admissions research director Gary Lavergne. He believes campuses must switch from the perspective of a "group of 7,000 people. We had stopped thinking in terms of the classroom. The case for race consciousness has to be at the classroom level."

Because state law requires a year's notice, the policy change will not take place until fall 2005, when African American and Hispanic backgrounds will be considered as one of 12 factors used in evaluating as many as 35 percent of freshman applications. That will reinstate affirmative action for the first time since 1996, when the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals banned racial preference policies in Texas, because they discriminated against whites.

Protests may be forthcoming from parents, legislators and others, because restoring affirmative action very likely will require changes in the seven-year-old, race-neutral admissions law for this overcrowded campus, which has more than 52,000 students. The law, which is intended to circumvent the Fifth Circuit ruling, guarantees automatic admission for the top ten percent of graduates from each Texas public high school, without regard for the quality of the school. Currently nearly three of every four Austin freshmen are "ten percenters."

While the law applies to all public campuses in Texas, only two-UT-Austin and the main Texas A&M campus at College Station-must deal with far more freshman applicants than they can handle. Austin received more than 24,500 freshman applications this year, admitted 11,000 and enrolled 6,544.

In contrast to UT-Austin's plans, Texas A&M President Robert M. Gates has made it clear that his campus will not consider race in deciding which students to admit. In a statement last fall, he made only passing reference to the Supreme Court decision but did announce plans to increase efforts to diversify enrollment, which is now only two percent African American and nine percent Hispanic.

(Photo By Jana Birchum, Black Star, For CrossTalk)   
"Parents will kill themselves to get their children" into the University of Texas-Austin, says campus administrator David Laude.
 


But UT-Austin has chosen a different course. After months of discussions, bolstered by the survey of 3,600 undergraduate classes, President Larry R. Faulkner released a campus statement, warning that a critical mass for the two underrepresented minorities requires "a "holistic, individual assessment of each student's background and record." Besides ethnicity and race, the admissions office next year will also review academic strength, written essays, leadership, honors, special circumstances, family responsibilities, awards, socio-economic status of the family, community service, experience in overcoming adversity, and work experience.

"Increasing the size of the entering freshman class, as has been done in the past, can no longer sustain race-neutral alternatives," the Faulkner statement said. While the ten percent admissions policy had provided "some modest improvements in diversity, it now threatens the quality of the educational experience because of the rising number of students being admitted using only one criterion."

   (Photo By Jana Birchum, Black Star, For CrossTalk)
Jess Butler, a Texas school official, worries that the new admissions policies exclude many talented students who come from suburban high schools.
 


The UT-Austin policy that was found to be unconstitutional by the Fifth Circuit in 1996 did not use a point system to help minorities qualify for admission as undergraduates, as the University of Michigan policy did, but it did employ a quota system designed to achieve the same result. While details of the new approach have not yet been formulated, it will require additional staff to review test results, essays and personal histories, Walker said.

It is clear that the proposed changes, which are expected to receive endorsement from the university's board of regents later this year, will not leave room for all ten percenters who want to enroll. Between classes, students crowd the walkways of the Austin campus, often slowing progress to a crawl. "We've hit the wall. There's no more shoulder room," Bruce Walker said. "The university is already the largest single-campus institution of higher education in the United States."

He and other campus officials favor limiting automatic admission to the top five percent of each high school's graduates, but only the state government can make that change. Governor Rick Perry has called a special legislative session for this year, probably in the spring, to deal with funding for public schools, and there is speculation that he will expand the agenda to include the college admissions issue. Interviews indicate legislators are divided on the question, with views ranging from eliminating the ten percent rule entirely, to leaving it untouched.

The affirmative action ban cut sharply into minority enrollments at Austin and College Station. Several years of recruiting, financial aid and summer courses at the Austin campus, directed mostly at 70 high schools with large numbers of African American and Hispanic students, helped restore black enrollment last fall to four percent of the incoming freshmen, the same level as before the ban.

The percentage of Hispanic freshmen last fall climbed to 16 percent, two percent more than in 1996, but both totals trail far behind their respective shares of the Texas population, which is about 12 percent African American and more than one third Hispanic. The latter are expected to become the Texas majority in another 20 years.

At the Texas A&M campus in College Station, half of each freshman class will continue to come from the top ten percent in their high schools. Beginning in fall 2005, one third of the other half will be admitted on the basis of "individual merit, based on academic achievement, extracurricular activities, unusual experiences, leadership potential and special talents," a campus statement says. The rest-about 17.5 percent of the admitted freshmen-will be eligible if they graduate among the top 25 percent of their high school classes and score at least a combined 1300 on the SAT, with minimum scores of 600 on both the math and verbal sections.

To help the campus find more minority students, Texas A&M President Gates has opened student recruiting centers in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio and Dallas. More personal contacts will be made to persuade qualified African American and Hispanic students to enroll, because in the past, less than half of those who have been accepted actually enroll. These tactics parallel the successful moves made by the Austin campus several years ago.

Gates recently hired James A. Anderson, vice provost for undergraduate affairs at North Carolina State University for the past 11 years, as the campus' first vice president for diversity. "The expectations are for me to work directly with department heads involving hiring a diverse faculty, including (more) women," said Anderson, who is African American. The campus plans to hire 400 new faculty in the next four years.

The switch back to affirmative action is bound to confuse parents and students, Bruce Walker, the UT-Austin admissions director, conceded. Since the latest ruling, Walker and his staff have had to overcome widespread misunderstanding among parents, students and counselors, about how to get into the state's most popular campus.

"The ten percent was a clear, simple message to every high school how to get automatic admission," Walker said. "Now the message gets muddled. We haven't done affirmative action for seven years. Now we have to explain another change in policy."

That reflects similar uncertainties around the country, said Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "The good news is that the courts upheld the core principle of diversity," he said. "The bad news is that they didn't fill in many of the blanks. It's a toe-in-the-water kind of discussion. There's a great deal of wariness on the campuses." But Reindl believes that opponents of affirmative action policies now face a large hurdle. "It took the court 25 years to take up the issue again. I would predict that there would be a significantly different court before the next time."

Most faculty leaders at UT-Austin welcome the Supreme Court ruling but are concerned about space problems and availability of courses on the overcrowded campus. Increasing numbers of applicants are being turned away from the colleges of architecture, business, communications and engineering because the ten percent policy applies to the Austin campus as a whole but not to its individual units. For example, the business school faculty recently reduced enrollment of undergraduate majors from 10,000 to 5,000. Increasingly, students must choose alternative majors.

"We have about a thousand English majors now, and from what I can see, the liberal arts probably are bearing the brunt of this," said Larry Carver, an English professor and director of the liberal arts honors program. "Forty percent of the liberal arts students are majoring in something that's not their first choice."

Like many of his colleagues, Carver has mixed views about current admissions and what is to come. "We get some really good students who probably wouldn't have thought of coming here (before the ten percent policy took effect)," he said. "If you really wanted the best students, you would probably recruit them from 20 high schools, and, yes, they'd graduate in four years. But we really can't be that kind of institution. I don't think the faculty wants it. We wouldn't get the kid out of the (Rio Grande) Valley and the Panhandle."

Carver's comments reflect the two prevailing and conflicting views among many faculty members, according to David A. Laude, associate dean for undergraduate education and a professor of chemistry. One wants the campus to be an elite university and get the very best students. The other, toward which Laude leans, wants diversity, "representing what the university should be. But, we have limited capacity, and therefore I'd like to see a modified, nice, practical compromise," Laude said with a dubious grin.

"Complaints about squeezing out strong students below the top ten percent have been much exaggerated, but the squeeze is beginning to happen and can only get worse," said law professor Douglas Laycock, who helped to represent the university in its losing appeal against the 1996 court ban. That case had focused on the law school's point system, used to admit more African Americans and Hispanics.

"I assume we will get authority to resume consideration of race, and I assume we'll get critical letters," said Laycock, who teaches constitutional law. "But I think we've carefully thought through what we need to do and will be able to defend ourselves."

A related issue concerns public scholarships designating race. Laycock is confident that such financial support will incorporate language suggested by the Supreme Court, to enhance diversity by taking the individual, not numbers or race, into account. Such help can make all the difference, he said.

"When I was a kid from a blue collar background, I had no doubt about the value (of going to college), but I was petrified about going into debt to do it," Laycock said. "We have to find ways to meet that need without simply using race."

African American and Hispanic students who were interviewed for this article strongly supported the ten percent admissions policy; they criticized the use of SAT scores as a measure of eligibility, and seemed unsure about the virtues of restoring affirmative action.

Ten percent admissions is "non-racial and good for south Texas," said Francine Rocha, 20, a junior and Hispanic from Laredo, majoring in biology. (South Texas is predominantly Hispanic.) "Minorities generally have lower SAT scores, and fewer standardized test skills."

"If I grew up in white suburbia I would have had better teachers," said Layron Livingston, an 18-year-old African American freshman, who graduated from a small public high school east of Dallas. "I believe the SAT is overrated. It reflects what you have been doing in high school, but doesn't predict college work. My SAT score was bad, but I'm one of those who can do the work."

Legislators have decidedly mixed feelings about the ten percent policy, and many are unsure about how affirmative action will fit in.

State Senator Teel Bivins, chairman of the finance committee, strongly endorses the ten percent law. "It's racially neutral, creates geographic equity for small towns and increases black and Hispanic enrollments," said Bivins, a Republican from Amarillo, in the mostly rural Panhandle. "Any proposal for change will require advocates well armed with arguments," he said.

Representative Norma Chavez, a Democrat from El Paso and a member of the House higher education committee, is not certain whether she favors changing the law. "We need to re-look at the ten percent, but I'm not ready to pull it out," she said. "I would agree to affirmative action; I do not think the public universities are enrolling enough minorities. Unfortunately, institutional racism still exists."

State Senator Jeff Wentworth, a Republican from San Antonio, calls the law "flawed" because it does not require college prep courses and shuts out students from good high schools with high test scores who do not make the top ten percent. "In light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, the top ten percent law should be repealed, and I have drafted a bill to that effect," he said in a press release. Wentworth proposed that the campuses be given the option of considering race and ethnicity as factors in admitting students.

Interviews with several directors of statewide associations indicated that most public high school officials support the ten percent policy but have reservations similar to those expressed by Senator Wentworth.

"I understand and support ten percent admissions, but believe many talented students deserve the opportunity to go to UT-Austin and are being excluded," said Jess Butler, superintendent of a school district west of Austin that includes Westlake, a highly regarded public high school.

(Photo By Jana Birchum, Black Star, For CrossTalk)   
"Forty percent of the liberal arts students are majoring in something that's not their first choice," says English Professor Larry Carver.
 


"A majority of our kids are looking at private schools and out-of-state colleges," said a district official who would only speak as a background source. Increasing numbers of Westlake graduates now enroll at two Texas private campuses: Southern Methodist and Texas Christian universities, or at out-of-state public campuses such as the University of Colorado and the University of Georgia. Similar trends are under way at other affluent suburban schools around Dallas and Houston, other officials confirmed.

A different kind of challenge prevails in poorer districts, such as one in San Antonio, which has many students from poor, Hispanic families. An official there said most who seek college training enroll in nearby campuses because they are poor or because their parents do not want them to go far from home.

State Demographer Steve Murdock agrees that the rapid increase of the Hispanic population requires urgent efforts to increase their numbers at degree-granting campuses. At latest count, a third of Hispanics in Texas who were born in the U.S. did not graduate from high school.

"There's a desperate need to insure that Texas has the skills and education to compete with what has become an increasingly international society, a very daunting task," said Murdock, a sociologist at Texas A&M.

"The alternative is that Texas will become a third world country," said Senator Bivins, a strong supporter of a statewide effort titled "Closing the Gaps," which helped gain support for upgrading required high school courses, beginning next fall.

But for many Texas parents and their children, who fervently seek entrance to the Austin campus, any clear or simple solution seems beyond hope at present. "What do you do about these kids in poor schools, being born in a small town or a central city?" asked Murdock.

Several officials interviewed here spoke enviously about the University of California, which has several nationally prominent research campuses. Freshman applicants to UC list several alternate campuses, and, at least until the current state budget crisis, most of those who were qualified were accepted by one campus or another. "We need two or three more UT-Austins tomorrow," Professor Carver said.

Mark G. Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas system, estimates it would cost at least $100 million to transform a campus like UT-Arlington or UT-El Paso into a nationally prestigious research university, and the money to do that simply is not available. "Vision without resources will leave us only with unfulfilled dreams," he told an alumni audience.

For now, the competition to enter UT-Austin, or to a lesser extent Texas A&M, will remain fierce, and the debate over who deserves to enroll at these schools will continue to rage.

"This campus means a great deal more than just a place to get an education," said David Laude, the associate undergraduate dean at UT-Austin. "One of the reasons I think people aren't willing to go out and build better colleges elsewhere (in the state) is because it's not UT-Austin. Parents will kill themselves to get their children here."


Carl Irving, a Bay Area freelance writer, is a former higher education reporter for the San Francisco Examiner.

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