Schools must move diversity to head of class

Editorial Board
Austin American-Statesman
Thursday, August 14, 2003

The University of Texas at Austin, which recently moved to reinstate affirmative action, also must change a mindset if it truly desires to recruit and graduate a critical mass of Texas' finest Hispanic and African American students.

A critical mass is important in Texas because Hispanics and African Americans accounted for nearly 44 percent of the state's population in the 2000 Census. Their underrepresentation at UT and at Texas A&M University -- the state's premier universities -- portends a crisis for Texas in business, government, research and industry. Texas has a strategic interest in providing its brightest and best students -- be they black, brown or white -- a high-quality college education. Their talents are needed to keep the state competitive and afloat.

Last week, the UT System regents properly moved to revive affirmative action admissions policies at campuses whose student bodies are not sufficiently diverse. Days later, acclaimed Rice University reinstated affirmative action admissions to begin in fall 2004. Oddly, Texas A&M, which certainly needs to improve diversity in its graduate and undergraduate programs, hasn't budged.

Texas -- whose universities have been barred since 1996 from using affirmative action to admit, recruit and award scholarships -- has seen a brain-drain of its brightest Hispanic and African American students to other states that embraced affirmative action. Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has leveled the playing field by upholding narrowly tailored affirmative action policies, Texas universities shouldn't hesitate to employ them.

Any affirmative action policy crafted by UT or other Texas universities shouldn't resemble the former UT Law School policy that got Texas into a legal jam in the first place. That policy essentially used a quota system by establishing separate admission pools -- one for minorities and one for white students. Under the old system, UT seemed to view recruitment of minorities more as a politically correct gesture than an investment in the future.

That policy was the focus of the Hopwood lawsuit and 1996 court ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that effectively banned affirmative action at Texas colleges and universities. But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling on the University of Michigan's affirmative action policies, upheld the right of universities to factor race or ethnicity into admissions policies to achieve a diverse student body. That overturned Hopwood.

The high court sent a strong message that while race could be a factor, it could not be the deciding factor. Point systems, such as those used previously by UT, are obviously illegal, given that the Supreme Court struck down Michigan's undergraduate admissions policies that relied on such a system.

The court's dual actions now provide a road map in crafting constitutional affirmative action policies. The UT system and other Texas colleges should closely follow that map.

Post-Hopwood admissions policies allowing schools to automatically admit seniors who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class have helped maintain minority enrollment at some schools. Even so, those programs, and particularly at graduate and professional schools, have been unable to draw a representative number of minority students who will make up the state's future leaders.

Affirmative action can't fix a mindset at UT and A&M that diversity is little more than a popular trend. The state's flagships must be as committed to recruiting, admitting and educating talented minority students as they are to fielding a winning football team.