Georgia Reaffirms Affirmative Action
President Tells Campus That University Will ‘Do the Right Thing’
By Michele N-K Collison
ATHENS, Ga. — University of Georgia officials announced late last month that they will continue to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions for a portion of the freshman class of 2000.
The pronouncement here came even as the university said it would abandon its consideration of gender, a policy instituted several years ago to stem the declining presence of male students at the university.
Dr. Michael F. Adams, the university’s president, delivered the statement defending the Georgia’s affirmative action policy Sept. 30 at the first fall meeting of the university council. His words sent a strong message to other public institutions that are revisiting their admissions policies.
“Those who argue that the only fair method is a statistical ranking of applicants’ academic records miss an important point,” Adams said. “True fairness also includes a professional assessment of unique family situations, the schools the student has attended, the community he or she came from and whether applicants had to overcome economic hardships to build a record of academic achievement. These things are not nearly so quantifiable as a GPA and an SAT score, yet they are important indicators of that applicant’s chances for success.”
The decision follows in-depth discussions with key senior administrators, faculty and alumni — along with educational and political leaders — both within Georgia and outside the state.
Adams said that 80 to 90 percent of next freshmen class will be admitted solely on the basis of academic criteria — such as high school grade-point average and standardized test scores. However, the university will continue to use additional factors in making admissions decisions for the rest of the class.
The university also will extend admission to one valedictorian and one salutatorian from each Georgian high school fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
In response to Adams’ announcement, State Attorney General Thurbert Baker said the University has a slim chance of winning a court fight over its race-sensitive admissions policy. “The university’s case will be difficult, given the current legal trend regarding these matters,” he said.
Still, Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes pledged his support for the university’s position.
“President Adams’ admissions policies have my wholehearted support,” Barnes said. “If students are going to succeed in an international economy, they need a learning environment that is geographically, racially and culturally diverse.”
Recently, civil rights activists have criticized colleges and universities for their tepid responses to voter initiatives and court challenges of affirmative action policies. Georgia now joins the University of Michigan as being among the institutions that say they will mount a vigorous defense of their policies.
Late last month, the University of Virginia’s board of governors recommended discontinuing the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions.
“I say, ‘Rah, rah Georgia,'” responded Eva Paterson, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Equal Rights in San Francisco. Her firm is representing a group of Black and Latino students in a lawsuit against the University of California. “If it had come out the other way we’d all be freaking out. But Georgia is a big state, Atlanta is a very important center with a large African American population. I think it is a good thing.”
Georgia’s admissions policy initially was challenged in a lawsuit filed in 1997 by attorney Lee Parks, who said race should be eliminated as an admissions factor. In July of this year, U.S. District Judge B. Avant Edenfield, while dismissing that suit for lack of standing, nonetheless advised that in his opinion, the university “cannot constitutionally justify the affirmative use of race in its admissions decisions.” Parks since has filed two additional lawsuits challenging both race and gender as admissions factors.
Adams defended the use of multiple admissions factors as a typical procedure at many highly selective universities. Last year, some 13,500 students applied for spots in Georgia’s freshman class of more than 4,000.
While most admissions decisions were made solely on academic criteria, admissions staff and the faculty admissions committee considered additional factors before making final decisions for the last 10 percent of the class.
For the fall 1999 freshman class, those factors included race and gender, plus whether students were Georgia residents, participated in extracurricular activities, worked during the summer or school year, had relatives who were alumni or were the first generation in their family to attend college.
The factors used in admissions decisions are evaluated year to year, and for the class of 2000, gender will no longer be one of the factors. In discussions with administrators and faculty, the decision was made to discontinue the practice of giving a slight edge to male applicants, who make up less than half of the current student body.
Last year, the university had 16,500 female and 13,4000 male students. However, the gap between minority and White students was far greater. Of the university’s 30,000 students, 1,823 were Black, 812 Asian Americans, 336, Hispanic and 50 Native Americans.
In his speech to the university council, Adams also said it was vital that the university continue its commitment to diversity. “The entering grade-point averages and SATs of our freshmen have climbed more than at most institutions in the nation. While carefully maintaining access for students from all portions of the state and of every demographic description, the institution’s profile has rapidly joined those recognized nationally as being among the country’s very best public research institutions. It is vital to the state of Georgia that this level of progress continue.”
Adams said he does not expect the admissions policy to meet with universal approval.
“Everyone is expecting the state, the University System and the University of Georgia to develop a solution that our peers in Texas, California and Michigan also have been seeking but have not found as they travel this same road,” he said. “There is no panacea — no perfect solution. However, I believe this course of action to be a responsible one. We cannot know what the legal outcome will be, but we want to do the right thing.”
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