U Mass Confusion: Spooked by a String of Legal Challenges to Race-Sensitive Admissions Policies across the Nation, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Rethinks Diversity Strategy

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U Mass Confusion: Spooked by a string of legal challenges to race-sensitive admissions policies across the nation, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst rethinks diversity strategy

AMHERST, Mass. -- The onslaught of legal challenges to race-based admissions policies has led the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to announce a revised admissions process that gives greater consideration to an applicant's income and geography, and de-emphasizes the consideration of race.

Students and faculty on campus were shocked and angered by the administration's move last month, fearing a retreat from affirmative action. Student activists felt particularly betrayed by the university, citing the administration's 1992 commitment to increase minority enrollment to 20 percent of each freshman class.

"This will have a devastating impact on the agreement made," says Kiya Stokes, a 27-year-old graduate student in labor studies. "It is a complete travesty of justice that the university would renege on its promise."

But university officials say they are not retreating from their original goals, but are simply thinking of new ways to address diversity without facing a legal challenge. The current political climate, created by court decisions striking down race-sensitive admissions policies in California, Texas, Washington, and, closer to home, at the Boston Latin School, was the main reason for the university's decision, says Amherst's Chancellor David K. Scott.

"We decided to move proactively with new strategies and a new interpretation of Bakke [the Supreme Court's 1978 decision outlawing racial quotas, but allowing race as a factor in admissions policies] rather than focus on a court battle that we thought we'd lose," says Scott. "We decided to stick to our goals and find new strategies for diversity."

Yet, some on campus feel that the university is running away from the fight and avoiding its affirmative action promise.

"There was no immediate cause for this," says John Bracey, professor of Afro-American studies, noting the fact that there is no court challenge threatening current policies. "It's not a courageous way to run an institution. It is demoralizing to students and faculty on campus to know that when things get rough the university will turn its back on its commitments."

In 1992, and as recently as 1997, student protestors have been pressuring the university to live up to its diversity goals through sit-ins. Now, with the university's new admissions policies threatening minority enrollment and access to scholarship dollars, students vow to keep the pressure on.

"We're going to have to build an opposition movement so strong that they'll be begging to bring affirmative action back," Stokes says. "And if we don't get it, we will shut this university down."

University officials are trying hard to counter the perception that they've abandoned affirmative action and point out that they are only adopting measures that other colleges and universities have instituted to fend off legal challenges to affirmative action.

Bracey fears that the damage to the university's image may have already been done. "It's like you hear that someone nearby got shot, so you go and commit suicide," he says. "The publicity will hurt the most, while the actual changes may not."

The overwhelming concern of students and faculty opposed to the new admissions policy is that it places UMass in line with Texas, California, and Washington as one more place where they are not welcome. They believe that minority enrollment will seriously suffer.

The university admits that minority enrollment will likely plummet to as low as 13 percent of the university's student enrollment from its current 19 percent under the new admissions plan. Last year's freshman class was 4. …