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Wisconsin attorney general: Race can be considered in admissions

A new freshman admissions policy requiring University of Wisconsin campuses to consider an applicant’s race as one of many factors is legal, the state attorney general said Thursday.

The policy adopted by the UW System Board of Regents in February requires a comprehensive review of each applicant seeking admission. Academic factors are the most important but other factors such as race, income and special talents must be considered to help achieve diversity.

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, in a letter to lawmakers, said the consideration of race does not violate a 1974 law that said no “tests based upon race” shall be allowed into admissions requirements.

Based on the history of the law, “it is clear that the Legislature could not have intended the prohibition on ‘tests based on race’ to mean anything except to prohibit the use of race as a disqualification for admission,” he wrote.

“The statute does not prohibit the use of race as a factor that would benefit a student’s opportunity for admission,” he added.

Van Hollen also said the policy complied with a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring that race can be used in admissions as one of many factors. But he warned campuses must perform the individual review “to comply with the constitutional requirement of equal protection.”

The policy says admissions officers will first consider academic factors ranging from grades to test scores. But other factors, including whether applicants are members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, must also be considered.

Previous policy allowed officials to consider race and other nonacademic factors only when a student’s academic credentials alone weren’t good enough to win admission.

More than 30 lawmakers supporters and critics of the policy had asked Van Hollen, a Republican elected as the state’s top lawyer last year, to weigh in on its legality. His opinion is nonbinding but could give guidance to judges if the policy is challenged in court, which some observers expect to happen.

Supporters said the policy would help ensure a diverse student body, give more minorities access to higher education and prepare all students to enter the global work force. Critics have questioned whether the policy would shut out qualified students in favor of minorities.

UW System spokesman David Giroux praised Van Hollen for a “good and thorough” review of the policy, which officials used to select the 160,000 students who will be enrolled in UW campuses this fall.

“This appears to be a confirmation that this is indeed a fair and honest admissions policy,” he said.

But Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said he was disappointed in Van Hollen’s findings and pledged to introduce legislation to stop the policy. His chances at succeeding appear unlikely, however, because Democrats who favor the policy control the Senate.

“The attorney general has ruled that you can discriminate on the basis of race as long as you do not bar somebody on the basis of race. I think he is wrong,” Grothman said. “We will try to remove this divisive policy of the University of Wisconsin.”

– Associated Press

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