Affirmative Reaction

Whether or not Initiative 200 passes, the legal bell is tolling for race-based preferences. What kind of university will that leave us?

TODAY THE 56th Washington State Legislature ends and a long, loud, and grueling political war over affirmative action begins. Initiative 200, which would prohibit state and local governments from giving "preferential treatment on the basis ofrace or gender," arrived at the Legislature after a successful signature-gathering campaign last fall. The legislators had the option of approving it themselves but chose instead to send it on for a public vote in November.

The nation will now watch to see whether Washington will follow California's lead in ending affirmative action in the public sector. California voters passed their own Proposition 209, almost identical to Initiative 200, in November 1996. California Gov. Pete Wilson, who championed Proposition 209, has eagerly begun dismantling affirmative-action programs in public employment, education, and contracting, while urban leaders continue to resist.

Most of Washington's political establishment—including Gov. Gary Locke, King County Executive Ron Sims, and Seattle Mayor Paul Schell—is dead-set against Initiative 200, as are the Port of Seattle, the University of Washington, daily newspapers, Boeing, Nordstrom, and most of the other leading local institutions. But they may be fighting a moot battle. Yes, I-200 would significantly change the way government does business; affirmative-action programs are widespread. But many of these programs may be doomed anyway, though later rather than sooner; the courts have struck down similar policies in recent years, and the legal writing is on the wall.

The University of Washington has already significantly modified its minority admissions policy to better accord with a recent appellate decision striking down the University of Texas' race-weighted admissions plan. And a pending lawsuit against the UW Law School, which may well reach the US Supreme Court, could force it and schools around the nation to abandon race-conscious evaluations entirely, regardless of I-200. (See "Turning Point," p. 11.)

But while the movement to abolish affirmative action is gaining political and legal ground, it may, as a recent article in The New Yorker pointed out, work to undermine the principles it is trying to enforce. Those who oppose "preferences" maintain that objective, color-blind assessments of merit should guide all decisions in hiring, school admissions, etc. But what's happening, as affirmative action comes under attack, is in some ways the opposite.

At the University of Washington, for example, the undergraduate admissions office is now moving away from objective, numerical academic standards

toward more "holistic" evaluations that will allow it to continue admitting minority students, though its special program for them have been legally undermined. If minority preferences are eliminated, through court rulings or Initiative 200, the university will likely not firm up its academic standards, but rather loosen them even more.

UNTIL LAST YEAR, the UW still had two separate admissions tracks: one for whites and Asians, and one for other ethnic minorities. The university defines these latter minorities—chiefly Hispanics, African-Americans, and Native Americans—as "underrepresented." (Though, as Seattle Times reporter Marsha King pointed out in a story last October, measured by their share of the state's high school graduates, whites are actually the most underrepresented group at the UW.)

Under this old system, the vast majority of UW applicants were judged solely on their "academic index"—a combination of high school grades and standardized test scores. But for those students who didn't make the cut, whites and Asians were sent into one pool, ethnic minorities into another.

A few hundred of those whites and Asians could then gain admission through "supplemental review," which would assess them for strengths and talents that were not strictly academic. Non-Asian minorities entered the Educational Opportunity Program, which essentially guaranteed them admission so long as they had a minimum academic index, one far lower than the score required of other students.

This two-track system has been legally dubious for decades. In the famous Baake case of 1978, the US Supreme Court held that it was acceptable to consider race in university admissions, but all students had to be subject to the same admissions procedure. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals turned up the heat two years ago, when it found Texas' lower standards and separate review board for black and Mexican-American applicants unconstitutional. The US Supreme Court let the ruling stand.

So the university is now phasing out its Equal Opportunity Program and returning all students to one pool. But that doesn't mean it's chosen to raise minority academic standards to those for other students; rather, it's lowering its standards for students of all races to EOP levels.

Formerly, "supplemental review" was available only to whites and Asians with academic index scores above 45. Now the university will offer it to any and all applicants with scores above the state minimum, 28. This year it expects to admit not just a few hundred, but more than 2,000 students by supplemental review.

At the same time, the UW is significantly reducing admissions based solely on academic achievement. In past years, it would review—and generally admit—the top 80 percent or so of in-state applicants, as ranked by their grades and test scores. This year, the university expects to admit only about two-thirds of Washington applicants this way.

That percentage will continue to decline as the applicant pool grows, and the cut-off for academic admission will correspondingly rise. Last year, most students with academic index scores above 60 were admitted without supplemental review. This year, only students scoring above 66 will be.

The rest will now have to compete on supplemental review, which awards points for such factors as leadership, community service, being low-income, being the first generation in your family to go to college, suffering some personal disadvantage, and so on.

There are good reasons state universities should consider these factors. But there is little doubt these changes will lower the average academic strength (as presently measured) of students entering the UW.

WHERE DOES I-200 COME IN? UW admissions director Tim Washburn says that if race were excluded as a factor in supplemental review, 60 of the 339 1997 freshman who are black, Hispanic, or Native American would not have been admitted. And that is a conservative estimate. Another factor, "cultural diversity," can also help minority (and non-minority) students gain admission. Students are encouraged to write about cross-cultural or ethnic experiences in their application essays, and to the extent that minority applicants write about their own cultures and racial identities, they may receive favorable consideration for race. That too might be prohibited under I-200: "We need some legal opinion," says Washburn. If "cultural diversity" were ruled out, the UW would have lost about 30 more minority freshmen.

Washburn says that if I-200 passes, his office might have to apply supplemental review to all applicants, as the California schools are now doing. He considers this the "ideal" approach anyway since "it's a better job." But such a policy would also significantly increase his department's workload, and would eliminate the spots presently awarded for high academic scores alone.

The university will also have to do more to help minority students become competitive applicants, Washburn says—though such "outreach" efforts might themselves be outlawed by I-200."[California's public university system] seems to have concluded that [under Proposition 209]they cannot target people by race," he notes. "You can recruit an entire high school, but you couldn't go in and say, we'd like to speak with all the Latino students about our program."

Still, minority recruitment seems to be going strong in California, even with the new limitations. Contrary to fears of a "chilling effect" from Proposition 209, minority applications to the UC system rose significantly this year. But Washburn warns that admissions will be another story: "The consequences of 209 on the two most selective universities [Berkeley and UCLA] are going to be very severe."

The University of California's offers of admission, to be sent out on April 1, may foretell the effect of I-200 on the UW's future makeup. Last year, after UC graduate schools, anticipating Proposition 209, stopped considering race, the number of black law students admitted to Berkeley dropped by two-thirds. The undergraduate numbers are likely to be equally shocking.

No doubt these numbers will be heavily publicized by the high-powered opponents of I-200 in our state. But as the initiative campaign heats up, the question remains: Do such shocking numbers really prove the need for affirmative action? Might they instead show that our society has tolerated and perpetuated massive disparities in educational achievement between children of different races—disparities that affirmative action later in life helps us paper over and ignore?

 
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