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University of Wisconsin Race-conscious Admissions Under Fire


Facing a backlash from parents and lawmakers, University of Wisconsin system leaders are downplaying their plans to change admissions policies to give greater weight to nonacademic factors such as race and income.

UW System President Kevin Reilly and board of regents president David Walsh say the changes, which would give less weight to factors such as GPA, class rank and ACT scores, would not mark a radical departure from current practices.

“There will always be a place at a UW system campus for students who study hard and get good grades,” said leaders of the system in a joint statement. The UW system includes 13 four-year universities and 13 two-year colleges said in a joint statement.

The statement came after news of the changes drew outrage from Republican state legislators, who worried they would shut out some academically qualified students and create uncertainty for parents about how their children could win admission.

The UW leaders portrayed the changes as tweaking current practices to ensure campuses are in compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision that says race can be considered in the admissions process but only as one of many factors. The system leaders say they remain committed to trying to increase diversity on their campuses, a suggestion often made by business leaders.

To comply with the decision, campuses are developing policies for students entering in fall 2008 that would require a broader review of all first-year students. Walsh and Reilly say UW campuses already consider factors beyond academic achievement, such as race, special talents and personal experience.

“We will continue to do that, because we know that high school grade point averages and test scores alone do not tell the full story about an individual’s determination and potential,” they say.

Many universities across the country, including UW-Madison, already take this “holistic approach,” which still considers academic preparedness the most important factor. The approach means no student, no matter how academically qualified, would be guaranteed admission.

But admissions directors predicted their decisions would not be greatly affected. Students who may have fallen short of academic requirements may win entrance, they said, but that would not mean other qualified students would be rejected.

Reilly and Walsh say the system “intends to provide more, not less, access to Wisconsin students from a variety of backgrounds” under their plan to boost enrollment on campuses. They are lobbying lawmakers for money to pay for the expansion.

Still, lawmakers say the changes sent the message that even some top students could be turned away from the system.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, called for legislation barring race, ethnicity and income from being mentioned in applications. “The university should be accepting the most qualified students regardless of where their great-great-grandparents were born,” he said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a Republican running for governor, says students “should not be subjected to some convoluted system in which a bureaucrat will arbitrarily determine if you ‘fit the mold.’”

— Associated Press

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