A leg up for minorities on campus

More states and the courts, too, may ban racial preferences. What's a state university to do for diversity?

Get ready for a new round in the race debate. A grass-roots movement wants more states to outlaw racial preferences in public education and hiring. But state universities that seek more minorities are fighting back, hoping to "deflect ... defeat ... and debunk" this drive for race neutrality.

A strategy paper issued in March by the College Board and more than 30 educational institutions calls for targeting "those who attempt to step into the fray and deprive higher education leaders of the tools ... to achieve the benefits of diversity."

The "fray" is the use of voter initiatives to end racial, gender, and ethnic considerations in public employment and schools. Since 1997, four states – California, Florida, Washington, and Michigan – have forbidden such preferences in universities. The leader of this drive, black businessman Ward Connerly of California, plans ballot propositions in at least five well-chosen states in 2008 (Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, and South Dakota).

The political wind is at his back after a 58 percent win for Michigan's 2007 initiative, which especially riled the University of Michigan. In 2003, it won a high court nod for its use of race as one of many factors in law-school admissions (although the court banned a numerical advantage for underrepresented minorities in undergrad enrollment).

Mr. Connerly contends that affirmative action has run its course, violates US civic principles, and hurts minorities elevated beyond their merit. On that last point, at least one study, focusing on law graduates, backs him up. And former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the court in the 2003 decision, stated, "Twenty-five years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary."

No wonder public universities are seeking political allies. And admission officials are enlisting lawyers to avoid lawsuits as they devise race-blind ways to enroll more blacks and Hispanics who don't meet minimum grades or test scores. The military academies, too, reportedly face a Pentagon directive to end favoring minority and female applicants for their affiliated "preparatory schools." And in coming weeks, two more decisions on racial preferences are expected from a more conservative Supreme Court.

Universities say that campuses need more than the best-educated students. (They no longer argue for curing discrimination.) A "critical mass" of minorities enhances education and prepares graduates for the workplace and society.

But it's difficult to achieve that mass while not subtly setting targets. Can there be racial goals without some racial discretion? Schools are trying many proxy ways to do it. Some give top graduates of all state high schools a ticket to admission. Or applicants are chosen by low income, neighborhood, or experiences of discrimination.

Schools want those white applicants who lose slots to minorities to see the greater social value in campus diversity. But they're up against divided courts and, lately, state-by-state voter initiatives against racial preferences.

The ultimate solution lies in giving minorities a better K-12 education. State universities that work with urban schools for better academic preparation may end up someday not needing to seek diversity by skin color.

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