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Thursday, January 22, 2004 - Page updated at 04:31 P.M.
Bills would let race be factor in college admissions again
By Florangela Davila
Gov. Gary Locke is supporting the first major change to Initiative 200, so public colleges and universities could, once again, use race as one factor in admissions.
A state Senate bill, the subject of a public hearing in Olympia this morning, would modify language in state law to be consistent with last year's U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Supporters say the bill, and a companion bill in the House, would amend but not abolish I-200, which three of five state voters approved in 1998. The initiative eliminated racial and gender preferences in public employment, contracting and college admissions.
The proposed changes aren't "about 'set-asides' or numerical quotas," said Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, the bill's sponsor in the Senate. "We allow institutions to use different factors for admission, say if a student is an athlete. This is just a tool so we can get the most capable, quality students."
But Seattle-area attorneys Harry Korrell and Russ Brooks argue such legislation would unfairly award admissions preferences to some students and not others.
Senate Bill 6268 and its companion, House Bill 2700, only address admissions to public colleges and universities.
The bills would permit admissions policies to consider an applicant's race, color, ethnicity or national origin to promote diversity as long as:
No enrollment slots are set aside on the basis of race.
All applicants are judged on how they would contribute to campus diversity.
Race isn't given a predetermined weight or points in admissions.
Institutions periodically review whether consideration of race is necessary to achieve diversity.
Initiative 200 was promoted as a civil-rights measure that would create a "colorblind" society. Opponents, who included a wide swath of elected, business and education officials, predicted it would be detrimental to the public workplace and college campuses.
Undergraduate enrollment of racial minorities, however, did not drop dramatically, and at some schools, minority enrollment rebounded to pre-I-200 levels.
The number of black and Latino students in last year's freshman class at the University of Washington, for example, has surpassed 1998 levels for both groups. Over the past six years, the proportion of black and Latino freshmen had dipped, but last year the percentages were similar to 1998's.
Racial minorities in 2003, excluding Asian Americans, represented 8.9 percent or 447 students of the freshman class.
The number of black freshmen at Washington State University dropped by 20 students from 2002 to 2003. But WSU's freshman class now generally mirrors what the first-year class looked like before 1998. Racial minorities in 2003 represented 13.7 percent or 415 students of the freshman class.
College and university officials had long been waiting for the Supreme Court to clarify whether race could be an admissions factor, ever since the court permitted race as a "plus factor" in the case of Bakke v. the University of California, Davis, in 1978.
Last summer, the court looked at both undergraduate and law-school admissions at the University of Michigan. It outlawed the use of a points system that used race but upheld a more "holistic" approach that did not consider race in "a mechanical way."
In the fall, more than a dozen deans from the University of Washington urged state legislators to refine state law to ensure a "vibrant and challenging learning environment in higher education."
Sen. Don Carlson, R-Vancouver, who supported eliminating racial preferences, is backing Kohl-Welles' proposal.
"It simply allows the admissions department to look at a student as a whole," said Carlson, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. "My only concern is that the bill is mischaracterized as overthrowing the initiative."
State law allows the Legislature to amend a voter-approved initiative two years after its passage.
Debora Merle, Locke's higher-education policy adviser, said the proposed changes would bring state law into compliance with the Supreme Court ruling. Creating campus diversity would be "a marvelous side benefit," she said.
But Brooks, an attorney with the Pacific Northwest office of the Pacific Legal Foundation, said voters made it clear in 1998 that they did not want any admissions decisions made through the prism of race or ethnicity.
"It's abhorrent and offensive that the state Legislature would undertake any kind of effort to thwart the will of the people," he said.
Tim Eyman, one of the original co-sponsors of I-200, agreed: "What is it about 58 percent of the voters who approved the initiative that isn't clear?"
The Supreme Court ruled only that race can be considered in admissions, not that it must be, he said.
Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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