Lawyer: Neb. May Have to Adjust to Preferences Ban

OMAHA, Neb.

The former dean of the University of Washington School of Law said Friday that Nebraska universities must be ready to adjust if voters approve a measure to ban most types of affirmative action in the state.

W.H. “Joe” Knight Jr.’s message to the Nebraska Legal Diversity Summit in Omaha: “Prepare yourselves.”

In 1998, voters in Washington approved a similar measure. Knight said minority enrollment decreased immediately, and has just now started to catch up because of the university’s hard work — and more money spent — on recruitment. Schools have also sought more scholarships from private donors, who can designate their money for minorities.

But a large problem with the measure, Knight said, was the perception it created among prospective students.

“You get a reputation,” Knight said in an interview with the Associated Press. Passing a ballot initiative to do away with affirmative action “suggests you’re not a welcome place.”

Knight spoke a day after University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman said the institution would push for diversity regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 4 vote on the ballot measure.

The initiative would prohibit state and local governments from giving preferential treatment to people on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity or national origin.

It’s being bankrolled by California’s American Civil Rights Institute, led by California businessman Ward Connerly. Connerly has prevailed with similar measures in California, Michigan and Washington in past elections.

This year, a measure in Arizona didn’t make the ballot, and signatures are still being counted on Connerly’s initiative in Colorado.

Knight said recruitment got costlier in Washington, and it would likely skyrocket in Nebraska because of the Midwest state’s low minority population and the need to recruit out-of-state.

Supporters of Nebraska’s measure said that if the ban forced university officials to work harder to recruit people who face barriers to college admission, it’s a good outcome.

“They’re taking the easy way out” now, said Doug Tietz, executive director of the Nebraska Civil Rights Initiative, which is pushing the measure. “You can do the skin color check or the gender check and that’s the easy way out.”

A better way to recruit people who face barriers, Tietz said, is to seek them out based on socio-economic status.

But that doesn’t mean a university couldn’t recruit at a church with mostly Black members, he said. They just couldn’t give preference to those people when choosing who to admit.

Knight urged those at the conference to work in the next 60 days to keep the measure from passing.

But he said it’s difficult to defeat once it’s on the ballot, because “the language is innocuous” and most people don’t know what they’re voting on.

“On its face, what could be wrong with the principle of neutrality?” Knight said.

But, he added, “it’s a red herring.”

It’s not about taking two equally qualified candidates and choosing the Black one, he said. It’s about realizing that “most of what we call qualifications are subjective, qualified preferences.”

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