Texas Hunts for Ways to Foster Diversity with End of Affirmative Action, Lawmakers Try to Redefine Role of Race in University Admissions

Article excerpt

Cheryl Hopwood has worked since she was old enough to lug a bag of newspapers. She watched her single mother juggle three jobs. She put herself through college while struggling to pay for her handicapped daughter's expensive care.

America, in her eyes, is a meritocracy.

Ms. Hopwood had little doubt, then, that her high grades and test scores would earn her a spot in the at the University of Texas law school. It did not matter to her that she was white. Her accomplishments, she believed, spoke for themselves. Today her name is on the lips of judges and lawmakers in Texas and across the US. After her application was denied in 1992, she became the lead plaintiff in a suit challenging the school's policy of giving preference to less qualified minorities. Her case has become a central symbol of the wrenching debate on affirmative action and is changing the face of public higher education in Texas. Legislators have moved to tighten scholarship preferences and are scrambling to find other ways to foster diversity. Ultimately, Hopwood's case could provide the definitive answer to a fundamental American question: What role, if any, race should play in determining a person's access to taxpayer-funded privileges. "We have learned in this country of the harm that racial discrimination does," Hopwood said in a rare public statement at the Claremont Institute in Claremont, Calif. "We changed our Constitution so that government may not select winners and losers on the basis of skin color. That is the law, and it is the only fair way for our government to deal with all of its citizens." Legitimate goals Although the US Supreme Court refused to hear Hopwood's case, it has issued a series of rulings in recent years which conclude the only legitimate goal of a preferential admissions policy is to redress past grievances toward specific groups, and not promote diversity for its own sake. The last major Supreme Court ruling on the matter was the 1978 Bakke case which held that rigid quotas for minorities were unconstitutional, but that race could be used as one of many factors in offering admission to public universities and graduate schools. Hopwood's suit, brought by Texas lawyer Steven Smith in conjunction with the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, alleged that in many cases, the University of Texas (UT) law school used race as the primary factor in granting admission and financial aid. Her lawyers argued that UT's practices of color-coding files by race, maintaining segregated waiting lists, and judging minorities by lower academic standards were discriminatory and unconstitutional. Last year, a federal judge in the Fifth Circuit of appeals ruled in favor of Hopwood's suit, and a subsequent legal opinion by Texas Attorney General Dan Morales prohibits public universities here from considering race as a factor for either admission or aid. The Hopwood decision applies only to the Fifth Circuit - which includes Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi - but the suit placed Texas, along with California, at the forefront of the heated affirmative action debate. …