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Newly Nominated Defense Secretary Praised for Diversity Efforts as TAMU President

The newly nominated U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has been praised for increasing the number minority students at Texas A&M University, where he is currently president. Reportedly he has been able to increase diversity without using race as a factor – but according to one leading education official, that is not entirely true.

“He uses race, it’s just in a more indirect way,” says Dr. Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.

Instead of directly applying race to the admissions process, Gates ramped up Texas A&M University’s efforts to recruit minority students by creating 2,300 new scholarships aimed at underrepresented groups. He also ditched the school’s tradition of giving admission preference to relatives of alumni, a practice critics say favored White applicants.

In addition, Gates opened satellite outreach offices — called Prospective Student Centers — in large Texas cities including Corpus Christi, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, says Alice Reinarz, assistant provost for enrollment at Texas A&M. The centers cost $3 million annually to operate, university officials say.

Texas A&M opened in 1876 as an all-male, all-White military school, and it excluded women and minorities until 1963. Any gains made through integration, however, were nearly wiped out when law student Cheryl Hopwood filed suit against the University of Texas at Austin, saying she had been denied entrance to UT’s law school in favor of less-qualified minorities.

The federal court found in Hopwood’s favor and struck down UT’s affirmative action policy in 1997, ruling that race-conscious admissions discriminated against Whites. The ruling was broadened to include all of the state’s public universities.

Before the Hopwood case, Asian Americans, Blacks and Hispanics together comprised 14.8 percent of the total student enrollment at Texas A&M. After Hopwood, enrollment for those three ethnic groups plummeted. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that universities could use race as an admissions criteria, UT reinstituted the practice. Gates, however, refused, saying in a 2003 speech that he wanted A&M students to know they’d been admitted based on merit, and “on no other basis.”

Texas A&M is “race aware in its recruitment and matriculation strategy, but race blind when actually making admissions decisions,” Reinarz says. “We’ve made substantial gains in the years that President Gates has been here, but we realize there’s more work to do.

“We’ve opened eight offices, created scholarships, and we send our troops out in force to identify ethnically diverse minority students so that they’ll apply,” she continues. “None of this existed before President Gates. With him, it’s not just rhetoric.”

Last year, local news reports heralded Gates’ strategy for reversing a seven-year downward spiral in minority enrollment without using affirmative action.

But Flores argues that Gates’ strategy does take race into consideration by targeting urban high schools with high minority student populations. “There is no significant difference between what UT does and what A&M does,” says Flores, whose San Antonio-based organization seeks to improve access to and the quality of post-secondary educational opportunities for Hispanic students.

“The strategies at both A&M and UT are comparable, especially when it comes to the results,” he says.

Minorities make up about 56 percent of college-age Texans, according to U.S. Census data. Enrollment of Asian Americans, Blacks and Hispanics at A&M rose to 18 percent this fall, according to preliminary data released by the university. The increase shows only modest improvement in minority enrollment, Flores says.

“I think Gates’ results show that his strategy is at least as successful as UT’s strategy,” he says, adding that neither school is where it needs to be. “I think both strategies lack a more holistic approach and that they miss good, prospective students whose talents don’t necessarily show up in SAT and ACT scores, or even grade point averages.”

Measuring freshman classes is considered the true test of progress, Reinarz says. And in that respect, A&M does show improvement.

Only 692 Hispanic freshmen enrolled at Texas A&M in 2003, while 158 Black and 234 Asian American freshmen entered the same year.

Using Gates’ strategy, Texas A&M recruiters have had more success with persuading Hispanics — the largest segment of the state’s population — to attend the university than they’ve had with other minority groups. Preliminary university data show 1,097 Hispanic freshmen entered Texas A&M this fall, versus 399 Asian Americans and 280 Blacks.

But even with more minorities on campus, racial tensions persist.

Shortly before President George Bush nominated Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense earlier this month, a video featuring A&M students surfaced on the Internet. The video depicted a White student in Blackface acting as a slave while being whipped and later sodomized by his “master.”

Both Texas A&M and the University of Texas have quite a long way to go, Flores says.

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