Members of the University of Virginia's governing board say the school needs to stop using race as a factor in student admissions, a warning that has drawn criticism from some U-Va. faculty and educators at other colleges.
The Board of Visitors has reached a consensus that the school's affirmative action program must be changed in light of recent federal court rulings, said Terence P. Ross, a board member who heads a special committee that has been studying the U-Va. policy since January. "The problem is we have used what some people describe as racial preferences," said Ross, a lawyer living in Alexandria.
Although the board has not voted on the issue, the trustees have told the admissions office that the school's policy probably could not survive a legal challenge. The trustees also have urged university officials to take steps to attract more low-income applicants of all races.
Ross said yesterday that Friday's 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling against race-based admissions at the Arlington Traditional School fortifies the U-Va. board's view and will force other Virginia colleges to follow suit. "It says we cannot have racial preferences," he said. "But it also says that legal forms of affirmative action still exist."
U-Va. administrators acknowledged hearing the board's concerns but stopped short of saying that the school no longer will consider an applicant's race. "Race has been a factor [in admissions] here. . . . With the precedents we've been seeing in these recent court cases, we're being urged to find other ways to do it," said Dean of Admissions John A. Blackburn, who referred other questions to U-Va. President John T. Casteen.
Casteen did not respond to a reporter's request for an interview. He told the Charlottesville Daily Progress this month that "the board has made it pretty clear that they don't want us to consider race" in admissions.
State universities in California, Texas and Washington have barred affirmative action on behalf of ethnic minorities, but most U.S. colleges continue to admit minority applicants instead of similarly qualified whites in some circumstances.
Officials at several other colleges in the D.C. region said that ethnicity remains one of their criteria when deciding whom to enroll and that they are not considering any changes.
Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a U-Va. history professor, said shifting the focus of the university's affirmative action program from race to income is wrong.
"Blacks do not face disadvantage solely because they are poor, although many are," he said. "Rather, blacks of all income levels share disadvantage because we are black and living in a society that gives privileges and favored positions to whites."
Rafael S. Figueroa, associate dean of admission at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., said schools that remove race from their admissions process without having been sued "are giving up the prize without a fight."
He said he believes Wesleyan will continue to consider race in admissions "not only for the opportunity we can provide to students who might otherwise not have access to an education of the caliber we can provide, but also because the educational experience of all students is made richer, more relevant to today's world and more valuable" when a campus is ethnically diverse.
But Ross said U-Va.'s lawyers have told the Board of Visitors that "certain types of affirmative action cannot be used in an educational context without there being a past history of racial discrimination" at the school.
Ross said his committee suggested several actions to ensure that the university continues to enroll a diverse student body, and he said some of those steps already are being taken.
The admissions office is seeking two new staff members to reach more minority students and urge them to apply to U-Va. And Ross and board Chairman John P. Ackerly III said the university may add a question to its application form asking students whether they have overcome obstacles in their lives.
The university also is considering a $1 million appropriation for a summer institute on campus that would be open to 200 students each year from high schools in low-income Virginia neighborhoods, although Ross said that idea is not connected to the admissions changes.
Advocates of the current admissions system say the board's concerns are premature. "The threat of a lawsuit is not a lawsuit, and one does not generate public policy based upon threats," said Maurice Cox, an assistant professor of architecture at U-Va. who also serves on the Charlottesville City Council.
Some professors say they fear that desirable minority applicants will shun U-Va. and that many able minority students will be turned away if the school changes its policy. The executive council of the Faculty Senate issued a statement yesterday calling the consideration of race in student admissions "both appropriate and justified."
The university newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, published a half-page ad on Thursday signed by 17 U-Va. faculty and staff members asking readers to contact Casteen "if you support the University of Virginia policy concerning the admission of minority students."
In 1998, 10.7 percent of U-Va. freshmen were African American, 10.2 percent were Asian American and 1.8 percent were Hispanic. Over the last four years, the graduation rate for African Americans has been 87 percent, one of the highest black graduation rates among colleges nationwide and just below U-Va.'s overall graduation rate of 92 percent.
The Center for Individual Rights, a conservative Washington-based legal foundation, placed ads in student newspapers at 15 colleges, including U-Va., in January saying that "nearly every elite college in America" violates the law by using racial preferences in admissions.
Terence Pell, senior counsel with the center, said he was "encouraged" by the indications that U-Va. will change its admissions policy. "I think it is the responsible thing to do," he said.
Officials at several other colleges in the Washington area said they are not considering any adjustments in affirmative action.
Linda M. Clement, assistant vice president and director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland, said ethnicity is one of 25 admissions criteria her school uses. She said she knew of no plans to change Maryland's system.
Paul T. White, director of undergraduate admissions at Johns Hopkins University, said he felt under no pressure to alter his procedures. "We still consider ethnicity and race, but it is far from the most important factor," he said.
William T. Walker, a spokesman for the College of William and Mary, said his school so far is not following U-Va.'s example. "Race is one of many factors that we look at, but there are many others," he said.