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Diversity fades on campus.

Recent assaults on affirmative action in student admissions policies are changing the face of America's colleges.

The numbers speak for themselves. The new first-year class at the University of California's law school has exactly one African-American student.

But that's better than the first-year class at UC San Diego's medical school.

It has none.

These chilling figures pierce any rhetorical debate over affirmative action policies in university admissions. The numbers illustrate the heavy impact that the abolition of these policies has had on opportunities for minority students.

And what's happening now is just the beginning. Spurred on by recent court decisions in Texas and California, those interested in dismantling affirmative action programs in higher education student admissions have expanded their efforts to other states.

Supporters of affirmative action have pointed out that college admissions have never been based on grade-point averages and test scores alone. Schools routinely make exceptions for jocks, the children of big donors and alumni, and friends of power brokers.

So why shouldn't these same schools be allowed to make exceptions for minority students? Certainly, affirmative action supporters have argued, a school's desire to have a racially diverse student body and to remedy past discrimination is just as legitimate and as legal as keeping the sports boosters and VIPs happy.

Some courts have answered "no"--arguing that although the Constitution doesn't prohibit discrimination based on wealth or political connections, it does prohibit discrimination based on race.

The leading case on this issue is Hopwood v. State of Texas. a 1996 decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In this decision, the court struck down an affirmative action plan at the University of Texas Law School that admitted some African-American and Mexican-American students with lower grade-point averages and Law School Admission Test scores than white applicants who were not admitted.

The law school argued that its policy was justified by the school's interest in creating a diverse student body and remedying "decades of educational discrimination" against minorities both by the law school itself and by Texas public schools.

The court held that "diversity" is not a legally sufficient justification for affirmative action in student admissions.

The court also concluded that although the law school once practiced de jure discrimination against African Americans, that ended in 1950, and Neither that prior discrimination nor the past segregation of Texas public schools justified the present affirmative action program.

As a result of the Hopwood decision, Black student enrollment for the entering class of 500 at the University of Texas law school dropped from 31 in 1996 to four in 1997.

The Hopwood case has served as a bellwether of other attacks on affirmative action.

* In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, a ballot initiative banning affirmative action by the state, including college admissions. Last fall, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the legality of Prop 209, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review that decision.

* In Washington State, opponents of affirmative action are trying to put a Proposition 209-type initiative on the ballot for 1998.

* The latest assault occurred last fall when the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions plans for both its undergraduate program and law school became the target of two lawsuits. Both were filed by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights, which brought the Hopwood case and served as the legal force behind Proposition 209 in California.

The two class action lawsuits claim that the university maintains a "dual admissions system" that utilizes different criteria for minorities and non-minorities.

University of Michigan officials flatly deny the charge. They claim that admissions are based on a number of different factors, including grade-point average, test scores, community activities, family background, economic status, as well as race.

University President Lee Bollinger has said that the school will vigorously defend its stand on affirmative action in court.

"The virtues of having diversity on our campuses should be clear by now," Bollinger has noted. "If we lose our ability to create that, we will move back toward a resegregated system of higher education."

Decisions in these cases are more than a year away, and appeals likely will follow.

Meanwhile, the University of California Board of Regents recently rejected a proposal that would have banned preferential admissions for the children of the rich, the famous, and the well-connected.
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Author:Simpson, Michael D.
Publication:NEA Today
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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