How to Get Diversity Without Preferences

All it affirmative action's next generation.

From new admissions policies at the UC Berkeley law school to after-school tutoring sessions in immigrant-rich sections of Boston, America's institutions are working mightily to craft new ways to achieve diversity.

Their methods range from admitting students on the basis of economic class - not race - to stepped-up efforts to reach out to minority-owned contractors. But it's not certain that these new approaches will work, or that they can overcome the same objections that felled affirmative action as it was practiced in this country for more than 30 years.

"Nobody has come up with a magic bullet," says Robert Cole, a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall law school. "But we've come up with a variety of suggestions."

Take Joe Galeota's classes in Boston's gritty neighborhood of Roslindale. For two months each fall, after the final school bell rings, kids trickle into the middle-school math teacher's room. Many are from immigrant families - Polish, Russian, Somali, or Thai.

They come to prepare for the entrance exam to two of the city's top schools - Boston Latin and Boston Latin Academy, alma maters of the likes of John Quincy Adams. Graduates have everything but a free pass to the Ivy League.

Mr. Galeota starts off by goading them into attacking the test - and looking for shortcuts. If you do it right, he tells them, "you don't have to do all the work." Less work? He's got their attention. "Look for the test-maker's trap. You should be able to smell the answer."

Test-prep in every school

Since last year, Boston has required that every middle school in the city have after-school classes like Galeota's. It's a response to lawsuits that made Boston Latin and Boston Latin Academy curtail their system of racial quotas in admissions. For many years, only the city's wealthier schools - and a few others with dedicated teachers like Galeota - had test-prep classes. Now every school has them, which city officials hope will boost diversity at the elite schools.

Definitive results aren't in for the year-old program. But critics say this kind of tutoring program isn't enough. "You're going to need tons more tutorial programs to even begin to scratch the surface of the need," says Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of southern California.

The faculty at the University of California at Berkeley law school hammered out their own program in response to the diversity issue. Over the past year, the group, perched at the pinnacle of American academia, has met three times over lunch to nibble on thai food and forge a new admissions policy.

Equalizing the numbers

The impetus for their gatherings was the 1995 decision by the University of California Regents to bar race and gender from consideration in admissions - and by the subsequent 80 percent drop in admissions of black students.

The school will now identify 150 of this year's 4,000 or so applicants as strong - if not exceptional - academic achievers, who also come from families and neighborhoods that are disadvantaged. Those 150 will be considered for 30 slots reserved in the class.

It's an experimental approach. And none of its creators professes to know if it will succeed in restoring diversity to the school. Professor Cole says he's only "guardedly optimistic."

But UC Berkeley, like many institutions that see diversity as a kind of nirvana, will continue to tweak its policies in an effort to get the maximum number of minorities. "We're a law school, so we can't exactly break the law" to achieve diversity, says Robert Post, a constitutional law professor. But "we'll do everything we can."

Schools are not alone in pushing into the affirmative-action frontier. The city of San Jose, Calif., has created an in-your-face response to the state's Proposition 209, which voters passed in 1996 and the US Supreme Court validated in 1997. It outlawed discrimination on the basis of race and gender in admissions, hiring, and contracting, ending affirmative-action programs in most of the government sector.

San Jose reacted with a sort of legal jujitsu. City officials reasoned that if Prop. 209 outlawed discrimination, they could require contractors to prove they weren't discriminating. Now, companies bidding on city contracts must document their efforts to recruit minority- and women-owned subcontractors.

Conservative critics call the program ridiculous - and illegal. They've filed a lawsuit to block it. Both sides see the case as a test that will outline the future of affirmative-action programs for the state, if not the nation.

"It's a crucial test case, because it will determine the reach of Prop. 209 - and the definition of discrimination and preferences in California," says Michele Justin, a lawyer with the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, which is suing to block San Jose's program. "Any difference in treatment of women and minorities" is illegal, she says.

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