Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

Defining \Di-Ver-Si-Ty\

Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

Defining \Di-Ver-Si-Ty\

Article excerpt

How UMass Manages the Use of Race In Undergraduate Admissions

When the First Court of Appeals ruled that Boston Latin School s admissions policy was unconstitutional in November of 1998, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst took notice. The case focused on Sarah Wessman, a 15-year-old white student who sued the college prep school when she wasn't admitted even though her entrance exam score was higher than those of a number of minority students.

The school's policy awarded half of its openings based on entrance exams and the other half on a combination of academic merit and race.

The case hit close to home at UMass because its admission system was then based on six rating levels (Admissions Ratings 1-6 with 1 being the best). The school then subdivided the categories according to in-state vs. out-of-state, and minority vs. non-minority. Assignment to the rating groups was based on SAT, GPA, class rank, and in many cases, ethnicity.

Joe Marshall, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of student affairs, said that typically UMass would admit everyone in AR 1-3, which would then leave the school with a limited number of available slots for the remaining pool. Some of the AR 5 and AR 6 applicants were admitted as exceptions.

"Unfortunately, there were a disproportionate number of minority students in that group," Marshall said. "But, the real problem was in the AR 4 category. This was the largest category of applicants, with the fewest numbers of slots available. So, we tended to use our campus priorities to drive the decision process, which is a fairly typical approach."

"The problem was that using diversity goals as a priority for this purpose was deemed to be too similar to the Boston Latin quota approach that was ruled against in the First Circuit Court."

Because of that factor and UMass's use of race in assignment to categories, UMass attorneys decided the overall admissions process would be indefensible in court if challenged.

Even with the shifting legal environment working against it, UMass was able to uphold its commitment to diversity. The revised process enables the school to achieve its goal of maintaining the greatest possible legally permissible reference to racial and ethnic diversity in admissions, officials said.

History Repeats Itself

Before UMass made any changes, administrators, students, and faculty assigned to a task force considered what other universities had done in similar situations. Cases comparable to the Boston Latin School's but that relate to colleges and universities have been shaping the role of affirmative action in higher education for years. One case in particular is the Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke which came before the Supreme Court in October 1977.

Allan Bakke was a space-agency engineer who decided to become a medical doctor. The University of California at Davis denied his application twice. He later found out his grades and aptitude tests were higher than those of others who had been admitted. Bakke contended that he had been denied admission because he was white and the medical school's admissions procedures included a quota system for minority applicants.

In the end, five members of the nine-justice Court found the medical school's quota system unlawful, however no majority could agree upon an opinion.

Justice Lewis Powell concluded that a diverse student body was a constitutionally suitable goal for a higher-education institution and that race could be used as a factor in admissions, but rejected quotas as a means of achieving diversity. Bakke was later admitted to the university.

The outcome legitimized affirmative action but limited it as well, and there is still no clear-cut approach for colleges and universities when it comes to dealing with diversity issues. Marshall believes it's because affirmative action was created for employment purposes, not for higher education. …

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