One week ago, the deans and provost at the University of Texas at Austin must have thought they had the affirmative-action issue under control. They had abandoned their race-based admissions policy, as ordered by a federal court. And they had found other ways to encourage a diverse student body to apply.
Then a provocative UT law professor entered the fray.
At a student-run press conference last week, Lino Graglia argued that the university should not only drop affirmative action, but that it should also stop giving special treatment to minority students. The reason: "Blacks and Mexican-Americans are not academically competitive with whites in selective institutions," he said, and in their cultures, "failure is not looked upon with disgrace."
The ensuing furor took many here by surprise. But it shows that race remains one of the thorniest of issues, and any sort of dialogue about it is fraught with peril. And the controversy may also hold a lesson for state-run schools nationwide as they begin to change their admissions policies. In the end, a system that combines - instead of separates - race and merit may emerge.
"We are moving into an era where whites are going to be a minority, and the primary customer base for companies are going to be ethnic minorities," says Beverly Daniel Tatum, an education professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and author of the new book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" Given these circumstances, "more colleges will begin looking at multiple dimensions of a person's education," including leadership, socioeconomic background, or experience in working in a multicultural community. "These kinds of criteria are not racially based, but they're not discriminatory either."
The talk of the town
Here in Austin, Graglia's statements have begun to take on a life of their own, and have shifted the debate away from affirmative action toward the freedom of speech. State politicians called for Dr. Graglia's ouster, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson led nearly 5,000 students on a protest march Tuesday. Minority students, including the black student government president, have filed racial harassment complaints against the highly regarded professor, and even Graglia's supporters distanced themselves from his comments.
While the professor's future is uncertain, there is no question that UT's past has been a case study in racial discrimination. The school didn't accept black students until 1950, and only then under a court ruling. Starting in the 1960s, however, UT began to reverse its discriminatory policy, and eventually, the university simply separated applicants into two piles, white and minority, and took the top applicants from each.
Last year, this approach was challenged successfully by a group of white law students, led by Cheryl Hopwood, who claimed they were rejected admission while less-qualified minority students were accepted. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and ordered the university to make its admission policy more race neutral.
For many of UT's black students, the combination of the Hopwood decision and Graglia's comments have felt like a slap in the face. "Most of us graduated within the top 10 in our class," says Keli Crane, a senior business major. "Even if affirmative action got us here, it doesn't keep us here. We all have to take the same classes."
Being one of the 1,722 black students on this campus of 45,000 also means standing out in a crowd, adds another senior, Regina Sharpe.
"As a black student, you have to go the extra mile," says Miss Sharpe, also a business major. "We learn to sit in the first row and visit with the professor. We have to prove that we want to be here. You feel like everybody is watching you, waiting for you to fail."
Graglia has been keeping a low profile while the administration reviews formal complaints against him. After a preliminary hearing Monday, Graglia expressed regret for his statement, and said he would encourage black and Hispanic prospective students to apply. Friends of the professor, meanwhile, say they hope UT will protect Graglia's tenure and his right of free speech.
"I know Lino well, and I know he's not a racist," says Julius Getman, a law professor at UT who says he was "appalled" by the comments. "He sent me a copy of a letter in which he referred to me as a good friend and a liberal fuzzball. That's just the way he talks. Once you know that he's not being malicious, it's kind of fun."
Ironically, as a "right-wing populist, Lino's actually an expression of diversity on the UT campus," Dr. Getman adds. "But for academics who pride themselves on openness, we don't exactly mean it."