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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 / April 1, 2003



CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.

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.

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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.

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."

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