House to vote

Coralie Carlson

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote today on legislation banning racial preferences on college campuses — the latest splash in a national wave against affirmative action.
If approved, the amendment to a massive higher education bill could force all colleges, including the University, to scrap race-based admission programs or lose federal financial support. The Senate would also have to pass identical language, and a reluctant President Clinton would have to sign the bill.
Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Calif., proposed the amendment to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, which dictates federal college funding for the next six years. The legislation determines such things as student loan interest rates and Pell Grant formulas.
Officials expect a close vote on the Riggs amendment, now that it has been modified to allow private men’s and women’s colleges as well as tribal schools to maintain preferences.
Removing affirmative action would “create a diverse student body in the true sense of the word — not by quotas,” said Terry Pell, senior counsel at the Center for Individual Rights. The law firm has represented students nationwide in cases against race-based admissions programs.
The House splits down partisan lines when faced with affirmative action policies: Democrats tend to line up behind racial preferences and Republicans usually oppose them.
Last Thursday, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., pledged support for the bill, calling for his troops to stand behind. In April, a measure against affirmative action tacked onto a highway construction bill came up 24 votes short without the Republican leadership’s advocacy.
President Clinton promises to veto the legislation if Congress incorporates the Riggs amendment into the education bill.
While Congress considers attempts to eliminate affirmative action in the nation’s colleges, Clinton proposed this spring that school and other officials build a coalition to promote diversity in higher education.
Wayne Sigler, the University’s admissions director, shares Clinton’s desire to make diversity a staple.
“Affirmative action is important because it provides fairness, opportunity and access,” Sigler said. “It means enhancing diversity in many forms.”
The University’s affirmative action policy promotes “acting aggressively and affirmatively to increase the presence and participation of racial minorities and women in areas where they are underrepresented.”
This does not include quotas for minority group enrollment, Sigler said. Instead it implements “goals” to improve the five-year graduation rates of African-American, American Indian, Asian and Hispanic students.
Although the school does not use quotas, head University attorney Mark Rotenberg said a federal ban on affirmative action would have a substantial impact on the University — especially if the school did not take steps to retain campus diversity.
“I think you’d see fewer minorities matriculating and graduating,” Rotenberg said.
This is not the first political initiative against affirmative action in the higher education community. Riggs’ amendment is the latest of several attempts to chip away at a 1978 Supreme Court ruling allowing racial and other preferences in college admissions.
“It doesn’t surprise me, it’s not a new phenomenon,” Guillermo Rojas, director of the University’s Martin Luther King program said. “It’s a feeding frenzy.”
Ballot measures and court trials successfully removed racial quotas in California and Texas, sending ripples across the nation.
In California, voters approved Proposition 209 three years ago, effectively banning preferences based on race or sex in state contracting, hiring and public college admissions. The state of Washington faces a similar measure — Proposition 200 — on the ballot this fall.
University of Texas officials dropped their affirmative action procedures after a courtroom defeat.
University President Mark Yudof worked at the Texas school and helped create the now-defunct policies. The Hopwood decision, named after one of the plaintiffs, found that the policy discriminated against whites.
Other comparable lawsuits are pending in Michigan, Washington, North Carolina and Georgia.
“This is a definite trend in the federal law,” Rotenberg said. “There is greater scrutiny and suspicion.”
Both Proposition 209 and the Hopwood case survived judicial appeals, blazing the trail for other colleges to wipe out racial preferences.
Following the new admissions policies, minority enrollment dropped significantly in flagship California and Texas public universities.
Officials at the University of California-Berkeley expect a more than 50 percent drop in African-American, Hispanic and Native American students in next year’s freshman class. Last year, the University of Texas law school watched African-American enrollment plummet 87 percent and Hispanic enrollment fall 46 percent.
These dramatic numbers could be misleading, said Pell of the Center for Individual Rights. His law firm participated in the Hopwood case and is working on suits against affirmative action in Michigan and Washington, scheduled for trial next year.
Pell said minority enrollment levels held steady or increased at other Texas and California schools after affirmative action policies disappeared.
“The problem seems to be limited to flagship or elite schools,” he said, explaining that elite schools place more focus on test scores where white students tend to fare better. Other colleges emphasize essays, hardships or special talents in admission standards.
The University’s admissions office uses two application review procedures, Sigler said. If applicants don’t meet test score standards, an individual review takes the other factors into consideration.