Seminars Offer Tips for Withstanding the Chill
More than 140 college administrators and legal experts gathered in Atlanta earlier this month to discuss how to achieve diversity on college campuses in an increasingly chilly time for affirmative action.It was one of four workshops that have taken place in the past several months sponsored by the American Council on Education (ACE) to help colleges craft new admissions and financial aid policies that could withstand legal challenges. The last seminar is scheduled for March 25-26 in Denver.The workshop started on a hopeful note, extolling the advantages of a diverse college community that reflects the nation. But it quickly took on a more serious tone, as panelists discussed model admissions plans, legislative bills and court challenges, and the chilling effect the anti-affirmative action movement has had on campuses so far.“When I say to you that we are in trouble, we are in trouble,” says Héctor Garza, vice president of access and equity programs for the ACE. “We need to develop new momentum.”Speakers from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) urged college officials to aggressively seek alternatives because their campuses could be the next legal battleground. “If you’re speaking to your lawyer for the first time on the courthouse steps, you’re too late,” said Arthur L. Coleman, deputy assistant secretary in the OCR. “Your question should be how should I meet my diversity goals in ways that make sense.”Moreover, Coleman said that it is critical that colleges and universities clearly articulate the role of tests and other criteria in the admissions process. “In crafting policies, put all criteria in writing, make it clear, and consistently follow it,” Coleman says.In the Bakke case, for example, the University of California’s policy said it would interview no one with less than a 2.5 GPA, but they had considered minorities with GPAs of 2.2 or 2.1.“Ultimately, you don’t want to articulate standards in theory and not in practice,” he adds.At the University of California-Berkeley, a race-neutral policy has led to a decline in minority applications, says Nina G. Robinson, manager for policy, planning, and analysis in the office of the associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment. Officials now read every application and consider academic and other factors, she says.Robinson has two pieces of advice for colleagues. The first is to avoid complacency.“Listen to your critics, no matter how mean-spirited their message,” she says.“Also, administrators must understand their own policies. We used a computer-based system of sorting and selecting applicants. It was not until we read applications that we realized we were racial stereotyping [Black and White students]”, she adds.In Texas, where the 1996 Hopwood decision prohibited the use of race in admissions, officials at the University of Houston Law Center and the University of Texas-Galveston Medical Branch also read every file and invited applicants to provide information on factors other than GPA and test scores — including overcoming hardships, family background, and unique experiences.At the University of Texas, minority admissions dipped in the beginning, but are back up, says Billy R. Ballard, associate dean and associate vice president for student affairs and admissions at the Galveston Medical Branch. The university has since expanded admission criteria to include such race neutral factors as education and economic disadvantage, factors that hurt middle-class applicants.“If you’re from the middle-class you’re not included [in the criteria],” Ballard said in an interview. “You’re looked upon to be competitive. So we’ve got to find a way to address this and overcome this adverse effect in the policy.” Although his university is facing a court challenge, Jere Morehead, acting executive director for legal affairs at the University of Georgia, left the workshop encouraged. Legal experts at the workshop praised the campus plan, which considers race among 14 factors for admission. “Our plan seems consistent with what the Office of Civil Rights has been advising institutions to do,” Morehead says. “We’ve got a good admissions policy now, and I hope it will withstand the challenge in court.”— Fran Freightman
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