One university's case for race

The Supreme Court today considers the practice of factoring race into college admissions. At issue: Does diversity really make education better? Here's how the debate looks from the University of Virginia.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For 145 of its 177 years, the University of Virginia was a nearly all-white, all-male preserve, a Southern finishing school where a gentleman's 'C' was perfectly acceptable.

It was also a place where, in February 1861, as the nation girded for civil war, students crept atop the school's famous Rotunda and hoisted a Confederate flag. And that's about where the affirmative-action era found Thomas Jefferson's university in 1969, still dragging its heels on civil rights, saddled with a history of segregation and unremarkable academic achievement.

Fast-forward three decades to a new University of Virginia, dubbed the nation's top public university in 2000 and - amazingly enough - a leader in terms of racial diversity.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

It's an ironic twist, yet many say the rise of Virginia's flagship institution to academic stardom is intimately intertwined with admissions policies that actively recruited women and today still give a "plus factor" to minorities.

Whether it's Harvard or Haverford or Hofstra, nearly all of the several hundred selective universities and colleges in the US claim that a richer ethnic mix on campus means a better education.

But does diversity really promote better learning?

It's a fundamental question that hangs over American higher education as the United States Supreme Court today hears arguments in a case that may deem admissions policies unconstitutional if they consider race when admitting applicants.

In 1978 the high court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, in which a closely divided court upheld the right to use race as a factor in higher- education admissions to improve diversity.

But Terry Pell could not disagree more. As senior counsel with the Center for Individual Rights, a conservative public- interest law firm, he says race is not a proven factor in educational quality and should never be a consideration for admission. The result of affirmative action is reverse discrimination against white students, he says.

Yet as the University of Michigan and its opponents wrangle before the nine justices today, some see a lesson in the campus nestled in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia - a lesson about what has transformed a campus, and brought its once-dormant educational promise to full bloom.

Today, gentlemanly Southern-style academics are a thing of the past. Instead, the red-brick walks are crowded with serious students of all races and ethnic backgrounds, moving quickly past the white-columned academic buildings that echo Jefferson's taste in architecture.

It's become a place where John Greene, a top African-American student, feels right at home - despite his school's history. He could have attended just about any elite university, but chose the University of Virginia. He knows that here, for most of a decade, the percentage of black freshmen enrolled has been at or near the top of the list of the 25 highest-ranked universities in the country.

"If it's one thing that I love about this university, it's that everybody that's here truly deserves to be here," he says, glancing at the multihued gaggle of students around him. "Sure there have been [racial] incidents on campus, just like other universities. But I still feel comfortable here."

One reason is the "critical mass" of minority students on campus. Today about 23 percent of undergraduates are American-born minorities, including 9 percent African-Americans - 1,142 out of 12,748 students. To many, it is no coincidence that the school's meteoric rise in academic stature has come at the same time diversity on campus skyrocketed.

David Nolan, a historian in St. Augustine, Fla., can barely fathom how far the university has come since he was a student there in the fall of 1963. He recalls taping a Time magazine cover of Martin Luther King Jr. on his door. Before long, someone had sprayed the letters KKK on it with lighter fluid and set it on fire.

"I knew no one when I arrived in Charlottesville in September 1963," he writes in an e-mail. "I talked, listened, argued with other students about segregation. 'You don't want civil rights,' one of them told me. 'You want my rights.' 'What rights?' I asked. 'My right to discriminate,' the student said."

Three decades later, the university is a dramatically different place, say veteran professors who witnessed changes on campus. Paul Gaston, who taught history at the school for more than 40 years, says that before black undergraduates arrived on campus, white students used to feel "they had permission to say just about anything that came to mind about race."

The dynamic changed radically in the 1970s with the arrival of blacks. Professor Gaston broke his civil rights class into teams with white and black students working together on reports that chronicled the lynchings and beatings leading up to the civil rights era of the 1960s.

Some white students, he found, were shocked to find out such things had taken place, while some black students had exaggerated ideas about atrocities. Gaston told both his groups, "Go to the library so you know what you're talking about."

Overall, he says, "The mix of students made a big difference. It made people more honest, think harder, learn more, and be more sensitive to others."

The 'plus factor' in admissions

John Blackburn, dean of admission at the University of Virginia, has run the shop since 1985. He says the school gives underrepresented minorities the same extra consideration in admissions accorded applicants who are athletes, or children of alumni, or wealthy donors. Such applications are tagged to denote a "plus factor."

That "plus" can help if a student is borderline, but the academics still have to be there, Mr. Blackburn insists.

So even though minorities' test scores have long been lower on average than those of whites, all have the academic qualifications to be at UVA.

Yet with college admissions more competitive than ever, the 1990s saw a raft of reverse-discrimination lawsuits. That's a shift from the 1970s, when affirmative action in admissions was seen as redressing wrongs of the pre-civil rights era.

But affirmative action is still an important tool for improving academic quality, many say. When UVA's gender and race barrier was broken in the 1970s, the result was an influx of strong female students. But a racially diverse campus was key to drawing the nation's best students.

Average SAT scores of incoming freshman last year were 1314, compared with 1206 three decades ago. More telling, says Blackburn, is that 83 percent of this year's freshman were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class, compared with just 66 percent in the top one-fifth of their class in 1970.

Diversity is a magnet for top applicants, Blackburn and Gaston agree.

"Without a steady flow of black students in the '80s and '90s, we would never have achieved the national ranking we have now," Gaston says. "We rose in the ranks because students from all over the country wanted to come here precisely because we were sensitive to the problems of a heritage of racial exclusion."

From 1995 to 2000, the University of Virginia enrolled the highest percentage of incoming black freshmen of any of the nation's highest-ranked universities, the Ivy Leagues included. It has also outpaced all other public and private universities in a crucial category: graduating its minority students - 87 percent, reports the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.

"I graduated in 1961, but I tell my students the University of Virginia today is the best it has ever been," says W. Edmund Moomaw, executive director of the Office of Institutional Assessment and Studies. "And a lot of that has to do with the fact that we have a diversity of students."

A professor of constitutional law, Dr. Moomaw teaches a class on race and the Constitution, and he says it makes a huge difference in the quality of the class to have minority students participating.

"It creates a deeper level of meaning when a black student stands up to explain to the white students how segregation hurts, and why the white perspective is only one perspective."

Counter views

Not everyone agrees that diversity has a positive impact on education.

"There have always been excellent religious, regional, and scientific institutions, and nobody used to think that they had to be diverse to offer an excellent education," says Terence Pell, executive director of the Center for Individual Rights, which hammers the University of Virginia for its admissions policies.

"In the last 20 years, every school in the country has decided it has to be just as diverse as Harvard, but there aren't enough top [minority] students to go around."

As a result, Mr. Pell says, schools will tip the admissions scales to admit lower-performing minorities at the expense of more academically qualified whites.

A recent study, which was funded by two conservative think tanks, challenges a fundamental tenet that the University of Michigan claims to document - that diversity produces better education in the classroom. The survey of about 4,000 students at 140 colleges found that as the number of black students on campus increased, student satisfaction with their educational experience dropped.

But it's also a finding that runs counter to volumes of research and the sentiments of some longtime professors on campuses who have felt the impact of limited diversity.

Gerald Irish, professor of religious studies at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., taught at Stanford in the late 1960s and early '70s, when virtually all his students were white.

"When I walked into my first class at Pomona after [being] dean for 14 years, I, a white Euro-American, was in the minority," he says. "Wow! That has made a big difference in how I teach. I think my courses are much better."

Many schools, eager to increase the number of minorities on campus, find that racism remains an obstacle, says Joe Feagin, a professor of sociology at the University of Florida.

In a recent report he wrote for the American Council on Education, called "The Continuing Significance of Racism: US Colleges and Universities," he says that embedded racism can undermine prospects for academic success.

"If I was a black parent, no way I would let an 18-year-old go anywhere near a historically white institution," he says. "They are going to face an extremely strong assault on their self-esteem and who they are from all that racism on campus."

The trickledown effect

Indeed, the University of Virginia - like many others - still struggles with its legacy. Last fall two fraternities were censured for permitting members to perform skits in blackface.

The campus was shocked again in February when a minority woman running for student council president was assaulted by an unknown white assailant and harassed with racial epithets. She recovered, and was elected.

Still, parents like Joann McCullough, who drove to campus to visit her daughter, are concerned about their children. "I'm just here visiting, making sure she's OK," Ms. McCullough says.

Such incidents also trouble M. Rick Turner, director of African American Affairs at the university.

"I have never seen [black] parents as fearful and concerned for the safety of their children as right now," Mr. Turner says. "I still think UVA has done a remarkable job. It's still the best place for African-American students. We shower them with love and attention. But this university has got to respond with much more than a Band-Aid to this problem."

Corey Walker, an Afro-American studies professor, says the growing acceptance of the idea that affirmative action is reverse discrimination ignores reality.

"Look at the huge athletic facilities we have being built here," he says. "You have the football team, mostly black, cheered on by an audience almost entirely white. Now what's wrong with this picture?"

What's wrong, he says, is that blacks are still pigeonholed within society and academia as athletes and entertainers, and are only slowly breaking out of that box to be taken seriously. Even at UVA, he says, faculty diversity lags far behind that of the student body.

But no one questions university president John Casteen's commitment to racial diversity. As director of admissions in the early 1970s, he was instrumental in opening the university to blacks. Still, he has been under pressure in recent years from the state and the university's governing Board of Visitors to moderate the school's "race-sensitive" admissions policy.

In 1999, in the face of legal threats, the university did drop a numerical scoring system that gave points for race. Today, some see a slowing of the number of black students admitted, and a weakening of the university's commitment.

"Will America's great cheerleader for racial diversity in higher education lose its leadership position?" asked the Journal for Blacks in Higher Education in 1999.

Black freshmen as a percentage of total first-year enrollments slipped from about 12 percent in 1993 to about 9 percent today. And UVA has also fallen from first to fourth among the nation's most racially diverse universities in that category.

Dr. Casteen is quick to defend the university's admissions policy. "What we have done historically is not affirmative action," he says. "There never were quotas."

But he insists that the university is sticking by its policy of "race sensitive" admissions. It is not, he says, backing off its commitment to minority students - a commitment he believes makes UVA academically stronger, not weaker.

Casteen loves to share the story of Robert "Bobby" Bland, who in 1959 became the first African-American to graduate from the university, even though the state had adopted a policy of "massive resistance" to desegregating state colleges and universities.

"[Bobby] made a conscious decision to remain here even after his roommate decided to pull out," Casteen says.

"Over the years, it became a student slogan that's been passed down into the lexicon of the Caucasian community on campus and other students: 'Bobby stayed.' "

Casteen leans back in his chair and glances thoughtfully at the ceiling. "That's it," he says about the two-word mantra.

"Nowadays when somebody - anybody, really - becomes discouraged and talks about leaving or giving up, there's always someone to remind [that student] that Bobby stayed."

Classes confront the recent past

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. - In his class on civil rights, Julian Bond's booming voice carries easily across the hall of 180 students, almost all of whom are white.

Most in this class were born in the 1980s. For many, it is their first serious exposure to the sit-in protests of the 1960s and the face of racism it revealed in America. "The sit-ins were a direct challenge to cherished white beliefs," he intones, "specifically, the idea that blacks were satisfied with segregation."

Several white students cringe as a slide pops up showing white youths pouring ketchup on a black man seated at a diner counter. Later, Mr. Bond, who lived through the 1960s crucible and helped organize many sit-ins, says that having even a few minority students in class is important. "I can't teach what I'm teaching to white students alone."

The benefits of a new perspective may be equally powerful for black students as well. "The class has meant more to me than I thought it would," says Erika McCullough, a third-year art major from New Jersey.

Later, just a few buildings away, a morning anthropology class has decided to make a "teachable moment" out of a recent racial assault on campus and debate what to do about it.

Wearing a red sweatshirt and an anguished expression, a white male student suggests that a mandatory class on race relations might be a good idea.

"Hey, look, I didn't learn anything about race or race relations until this class," he laments. "I just think I need a class to be able to deconstruct it."

Jamie Williams, a student whose mother is white and father is black, wishes there were more social integration on campus - a common sentiment. At present, fraternities divide along racial lines, as do dorms. Still, she takes a long view.

"We have to remember it's taken 200 years for it to get this way - and the University of Virginia is really just a microcosm," she says. "This [racism] is really an American problem."

Arbitrary criteria in admissions

Barbara Grutter, a mother of two, housewife, and healthcare consultant who lives in Plymouth, Mich., has wanted to attend law school since 1997.

Very soon, the wait may be over.

In oral arguments expected today, her lawyers will tell the US Supreme Court that the University of Michigan Law School discriminated against her because of her race (she is white), while minority applicants with lesser grades and test scores won admission.

Likewise, in a parallel case being heard at the same time, attorneys for Jennifer Gratz will argue the University of Michigan's undergraduate admission policies also discriminated unfairly against her because she is white.

On the opposite side, the University of Michigan - supported by at least 80 friend-of-the-court briefs filed by dozens of universities and major corporations - will argue that giving weight to an applicant's race in support of diversity is a "compelling interest" needed for educational quality.

The court's decision could change the face of American higher education. Some fear it will shut the door on many minorities at elite institutions if "race conscious" admissions is outlawed.

Further complicating the case is the fact that most selective colleges and universities have long used arbitrary criteria in admission - not just scores and grades - because of diversity.

Few would want to attend a school where everyone is a bookworm - which is why some applicants are admitted in part because they play the flute or football. Others get in because their parents are big donors or alumni.

Universities have long relied on a 1978 Supreme Court ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that outlawed outright racial quotas in college admission, but permitted schools to give limited weight to race.

Still, that decision, written by Justice Lewis Powell Jr., has been under assault for a decade. In the wake of court reversals and voter referendums, states such as California and Florida have adopted race neutral "percent plans." In Texas, the top 10 percent of a high school graduating class wins automatic admission to a state school.

Such alternatives, however, have plenty of critics, who say unevenly funded and segregated K-12 schools often do a poor job preparing students. As a result, their top students may get into college but not succeed there.

A history of integration in higher education

1823: The first African-American to receive a US college degree, Alexander Twilight, graduates from Middlebury College in Vermont.

1896: Plessy v. Ferguson
Black shoemaker Homer Plessy sues when he is barred from a 'whites only' railroad car. The US Supreme Court rules that it is legal to maintain 'separate but equal' public facilities.

1954: Brown v. Board of Education
Linda Brown's family sues to allow the third-grader to attend a nearby white elementary school. The high court overturns Plessy v. Ferguson and orders public schools to integrate.

1962: James Meredith becomes the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Two students die in the ensuing riots.

1963: Gov. George Wallace bars the door of the University of Alabama to prevent two black students from enrolling.

1978: Regents of the University of California v. Bakke
Allan Bakke sues when he is twice denied admission to a California medical school despite having better grades and test scores than some minority enrollees. The high court outlaws a racial quota system, but affirms race as a factor in school admissions.

1996: Hopwood v. Texas
Cheryl Hopwood, a white applicant, sues the University of Texas Law School when she is rejected and minority students with lower scores are accepted. The Fifth Circuit court rules that the affirmative-action system is discriminatory, ending all consideration of race in college admissions in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

1997: Grutter v. Bollinger
Barbara Grutter sues the University of Michigan for denying her admission to its law school, citing higher grades and test scores than some minority applicants who won admission. Her case goes to the US Supreme Court.

1997: Gratz v. Bollinger
Jennifer Gratz sues the University of Michigan after her undergraduate application is rejected. Her claim was denied by a federal district judge. Her case heads to the US Supreme Court.

2003: The US Supreme Court hears arguments on Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. A decision is expected by July.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...