Texas, California, Washington, and now GeorgiaFederal Judge sides with White student in admissions dispute
By Doug CummingATLANTA — A federal judge has ruled that a University of Georgia (UGA) admissions policy used from 1990 to 1995 to foster diversity on its campuses was unconstitutional.U.S. District Court Judge B. Avant Edenfield of Savannah, rejected diversity as too abstract a goal to justify the “concrete constitutional injuries” caused by race-conscious admission. The ruling covers only part of a much larger lawsuit filed against the board of regents in 1997 by a group of students and parents. The lawsuit targeted admissions policies at the University of Georgia and a lack of racial diversity at Georgia’s three historically Black universities — Albany State University, Fort Valley State University, and Savannah State University. Edenfield put off ruling on the HBCUs, focusing solely on admissions at the University of Georgia.“However noble this general goal is, a court must scrutinize the specific policies which seek to achieve diversity,” Edenfield wrote. “Abstractions aimed at marginally increasing diversity simply cannot carry the day because such benefit is far outweighed by the stigmatizing, polarizing costs imposed by racial classifications.”Edenfield’s ruling focused on Kirby Tracy, who filed suit after being denied admission to UGA. From 1990 to 1995, UGA admitted Blacks with lower test scores and grade point averages than non-Black students. Black students could be admitted if they scored a minimum score of 800 on the SAT and a grade-point average of 2.0. Non-Black applicants needed a minimum of 980 and a minimum GPA of 2.5.Tracy had a 3.47 grade-point average and scored 830 on the SAT when he applied in the fall of 1995. Tracy was prevented “solely on the basis of his skin color from competing on equal footing for a spot in UGA’s 1995 freshman class,” the judge said. The Athens school escaped a ruling on its current policy, which uses race as one of several factors in admission of borderline applicants, when the judge dismissed the claim of a second White applicant who was denied admission in 1996.The White Atlanta attorney who brought the suit on behalf of five White and two Black plaintiffs welcomed the recent ruling as a barometer indicating that the judge does not buy diversity as a satisfactory rationale. “I don’t think the court is willing to use race solely to enhance diversity, when [diversity] has been so ill-defined,” said A. Lee Parks Jr., who filed Wooden v. Board of Regents in 1997. “Diversity of what? The court said if it’s just skin color, that won’t get it.”Kenneth Dious, an Athens, Ga., attorney for the Georgia Conference of the NAACP — which has been allowed to join on the state’s side of the case , says the NAACP will appeal if the overall ruling goes against Georgia. He said he will take it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.The board of regents did not try to defend the dual-track admissions policy, which it had abandoned at the recommendation of the state’s attorney general. Instead, it argued that Kirby had no standing to sue since the policy was no longer in effect and because Kirby was later admitted. But the president of the UGA issued a statement pointing out that this partial ruling is the first in a multifaceted case, and only addressed an admission policy the university abandoned after 1995 at the recommendation of the state attorney general.“We have respect for the law and the courts and believe that our current policies are legal and reflect a desire to continue to aggressively recruit qualified African American students,” says Dr. Michael F. Adams, president of the university. Tracy was admitted to the Athens school as a transfer student in 1997 after spending two years at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville. He sued for unspecified damages. Worried about the constitutionality of its admissions policy, the university stopped using different standards for Blacks and Whites in 1996. The new policy uses the same academic standards for all students regardless of race. For borderline applicants, who make up about 25 percent of freshman admissions, the university considers race as one of several factors — including whether the applicant’s parents are alumni. Ashley Davis was denied admission under the new policy in 1996. Davis joined Parks’ suit, claiming she was denied admission because she is White. Edenfield dismissed her claim after the university showed that Davis failed to meet minimum academic requirements and was never considered as a borderline case, the only point where race is a factor. “The record shows that UGA denied her application solely upon her grades and test scores, not on her race or gender,” Edenfield wrote. Judge Edenfield’s ruling could further weaken the diversity that the system is trying to promote. Georgia’s lottery-funded, full-tuition HOPE scholarship, given to every in-state “A” or “B” student at every state campus, continues to heat up the competition for slots at the flagship UGA while the percentage of Black students there — currently 6.2 percent — steadily falls. The state’s school-age population is about 37 percent Black. The average SAT score of the entering freshman class at UGA has sky-rocketed 100 points to about 1,190 in the five years since HOPE began.Edenfield did not rule on the validity of the university’s policy, but determined that his ruling against the 1995 policy was not moot because UGA could revert to the old policy at any time. The university system’s chancellor, Dr. Stephen R. Portch, “has announced his intent to continue using race as a factor in admissions until otherwise directed by a court order,” Edenfield wrote. Portch may have taken such a position, but he has bigger fish to fry. The British-born chancellor, as he institutes tougher admission standards throughout the system, is busy with efforts to see that all students get the background they need in school to reach those standards. Since arriving from Wisconsin in 1994, he has launched two initiatives to address weaknesses in Georgia schools that hinder many poor students — especially poor, Black students.One is called the Georgia P-16 Initiative, so called because it attempts to bring to the same table leaders from pre-school to college, or “grade 16.” His other initiative is called PREP — the Post-secondary Readiness Enrichment Program and identifies middle school students who lack aspirations for, and awareness of, college because of family background. Portch has called both programs alternatives to affirmative action. But because they do not rely on race, they don’t present any thorny legal problems. How effective they will prove to be is yet to be seen, Portch admits.While Portch remains in step with higher education officials trying to defend race-sensitive admission against growing assaults, his focus on alternatives suggests that he is not particularly eager for Georgia to become the landmark case, especially if he ultimately loses. The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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