|Wednesday, June 23, 2004
Race fades as factor in academic community
|Schools in Virginia and elsewhere are opting to play it safe rather than risk a costly legal battle.
By Kevin Miller
Last June, supporters of affirmative action declared victory when the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed limited use of race in college admissions. It was one of the court's highest-profile rulings of the year and its first major foray into the realm of collegiate affirmative action in 25 years.
Exactly 12 months later, that sense of vindication has faded. Despite winning the battle over admissions, supporters of affirmative action appear to be losing ground in the areas of financial aid and minority outreach programs.
Colleges in Virginia and nationwide are quietly opening up scholarships previously restricted to black students. Programs aimed at recruiting and retaining minorities have been scrapped or broadened to include white students. And once again, highly selective colleges with race-based programs are on the defensive.
"While we have secured that critical victory with regards to diversity ... there have been a series of attacks since the decision by conservative, right-wing groups attempting to achieve through threat what they could not achieve in the Michigan case," said Lia Epperson, assistant counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In its June 23, 2003, rulings in what are known as the Grutter and Gratz cases, the court endorsed the use of race as one of many admissions factors to increase diversity on campus. In so doing, the court majority reaffirmed the diversity argument in the landmark 1978 Bakke case. The court overwhelmingly rejected, however, a University of Michigan policy that awarded applicants "points" on the undergraduate admissions scale just for being black as well as quota systems.
But the justices were conspicuously silent on race-based scholarships and programs, leaving those weighty issues open to interpretation by lower courts and the opposing sides.
"I think it's more complicated [today] because the decisions were not clear," said Diane Schachterle, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Rights Institute, a leading opponent of affirmative action. "It remains muddied ."
Based in California, the American Civil Rights Institute and its East Coast collaborator, the Center for Equal Opportunity, are capitalizing on that ambiguity.
Extrapolating from the court's rulings, the groups have sent letters to dozens of colleges and universities nationwide warning them against denying qualified white students access to scholarships and programs offered to minorities.
The Center for Equal Opportunity, based in Sterling, Va., has filed formal complaints with the federal Office for Civil Rights against a handful of institutions - Virginia Tech, Pepperdine University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology among them.
"Even though the proponents of racial preferences hailed the Supreme Court decision ... the fact of the matter is the use of racial preferences remains very suspect," said Roger Clegg, CEO's general counsel. "And schools that insist on using such practices remain on the defensive."
Virginia Tech officials insist that the office of Attorney General Jerry Kilgore was the driving force behind changes to minority programs. Tech governing board members cited Kilgore's advice against race-conscious policies as justification for their March 2003 vote to end affirmative action in admissions, financial aid and hiring. Although the board later relented to public pressure and reversed that decision, Tech gradually has eliminated or opened up minority scholarships and programs to all students, regardless of race.
"I don't think the CEO had anything to do with it," said Tech spokesman Larry Hincker. "In our particular case, we're following the advice of the attorney general."
Other schools in Virginia and elsewhere also are opting to play it safe rather than risk a costly legal battle.
The College of William and Mary reconfigured one minority program and has reviewed others since the Supreme Court ruling. Harvard and Yale universities opened up summer programs for minorities. Amherst College in Massachusetts, Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University and MIT also now admit white students to outreach programs created for minority students.
Black scholarships also have taken a hit.
In 2001, 40 percent of all public, four-year universities nationwide administered scholarships restricted to specific racial or ethnic groups, according to a survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and The College Board. More recent numbers are not available, but some schools - including Indiana University and Washington University in St. Louis - have opened up minority scholarships.
Kenneth Redd, director of research and policy analysis for NASFAA, said many college officials would prefer to keep quiet about the recent changes.
"Many institutions are afraid that if they announce sweeping changes in their aid programs, it might lead to lawsuits or other controversies on campus or in the media," Redd wrote in an e-mail. While those programs typically enroll very few students, changing them "could mean a lot symbolically to their campus communities," he said.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Epperson said that her organization often gets calls from colleges and universities seeking guidance on such issues. She recommends that every policy be examined individually and that, whenever possible, race-blind criteria be incorporated. But she defended the need for race-conscious policies.
Ronald Krotoszynski, a professor and constitutional law scholar at Washington and Lee University's School of Law, said that the Supreme Court clearly wants lower courts to hash out the remaining issues. In the meantime, institutions are left with "a lot of guesswork," he said.
"It took the court 25 years to get from Bakke to the Grutter and Gratz decisions, so I don't look for the court to return to affirmative action in higher education any time soon," Krotoszynski said.