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Austin Chronicle Cream of the Crop

By Audrey Duff

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  In the wake of Hopwood, Texas's institutions of higher education are suffering under their newfound reputation as affirmative action deadbeats. With several of UT's first black law students still alive to tell the tale of being forced to attend a "separate but equal" school in a basement because only white people could attend UT, the university has now been put in the impossible position of having to disavow the affirmative action policies it had put in place over the years to ensure a diverse student body.

The 1997-98 school year is the first time that state schools are fully implementing new rules stemming from the 1996 Hopwood case. The numbers are out - despite maneuverings by UT officials that appeared to inflate them - and what everyone feared would happen is true. Figures recently released by the UT and reported last month in the Austin American-Statesman show that, indeed, fewer minorities were admitted to the university in Fall 1997 than were admitted in 1996. While the number of Hispanics fell from 932 to 892, the number of blacks was even more disheartening, dipping from 266 to 190.

As for UT's Law School, where the Hopwood case originated, the difference between last year's class and this is even more alarming: 31 African American students entered the law school in Fall 1996; last Fall's entering class included only four. Again, Hispanics fared somewhat better: 42 in Fall 1996, as opposed to this year's 26.

Many Hopwood proponents will question whether this is really a bad thing. After all, perhaps UT has been guilty all this time of putting minorities in settings where they can't compete anyway. (Hey... wasn't there some law professor who once said that blacks and Hispanics weren't raised to compete in academic settings?) UT hasn't done any favors by giving these kids a boost to get in, the argument goes, but rather, has set them up for failure.

But other educators (as well as U.S. Supreme Court Justices) counter that promoting diversity is a benefit not just to minorities who have had to overcome obstacles presented by both historical and current prejudices - diversity on campus is a beneficial learning environment for all students who must learn, live, and work in a world that is filled with real people. But let's put all that aside and get selfish for a minute. If Texas institutions can't compete with the rest of the country in attracting minority students, what will become of the school? Surely the best and brightest of any race won't be interested in attending a lily-white institution. And how about those legislators? They are bound by the Texas Constitution to support a "university of the first class," and to provide equal-opportunity education. What's to prevent lawmakers from deciding that our state institutions have become just a tad too elitist to deserve public funding any more? Why give to a program that educates only a particular portion of the people living here? If UT wanted to feel the wrath of the Lege, all it would have to do is remain complacent and allow those minority admissions numbers to continue their downward spiral.



photograph by Doug Potter

But that's not what UT is doing. Some schools have already been considering more than just grades and test scores in their admissions criteria, and Texas A&M University made news on Tuesday when it announced it will no longer require students to take the Medical College Admissions Test, but will make judgments based on grades and course requirements instead. And, in a bold move that has captured the attention of educators throughout the nation, minority lawmakers have gotten to work putting forward reforms that some say may actually result in enrolling more black and Hispanic undergraduates to the University of Texas than ever before.

The new law, dubbed the "Ten Percent Plan," was passed at the end of the 1997 legislative session, and signed by Gov. George W. Bush. Two proponents of the plan are UT law professors William Forbath and Gerald Torres, who wrote an article in praise of it in the Dec. 15 issue of The Nation. Entitled "The 'Talented Tenth' in Texas," the article explains that the new law entitles the top 10% of each high school graduating class in Texas to attend any state campus. The reason why this would work so well in Texas, according to the authors, is because our state's regions, cities, and high schools are so segregated - either all white, all black, or all brown - that the plan would virtually ensure an infusion of minority students to UT. Taking the top 10% from every school regardless of the students' races is "colorblind," as required by the Hopwood decision, but, according to UT history professor David Montejano, as quoted in The Nation, "It uses our bitter history of segregation to promote diversity." He added that, "At the same time, it addresses the broader inequities that lead UT Austin to see few of the brightest kids of any color from the state's poorer counties."

The new plan was embraced by several conservative lawmakers, perhaps because it appealed to their populist tendencies - the law means that a poor student - be he white or black - who does not score well on the SAT can still work hard, make it to the top 10% of his class, and automatically be admitted into UT. SAT detractors have been complaining for years that kids from higher income families typically score better on the SAT, not because they have a greater aptitude for learning, but because they know more, having been taught at better-funded schools. This law helps even out that class disparity.

Of course there is the worry that these "Ten Percent" students will be out of their depth at UT. One UT instructor says, "That sounds great, but you won't be the one to have to teach these kids. Many will fail - UT already has a problem with its minority retention rate. Imagine what it will be like under the Ten Percent Plan." In response to that concern, the legislation provides that UT could require summer remedial programs; however, if minority students fail or drop out in record numbers, then the hope among "Ten Percent" advocates is that it will finally force Texas to enact ways to fix the funding inequities in the state's public school system.

Still, is the goal of diversity worth lowering the standards at Texas' most highly regarded institution of higher education? Forbath and Torres contend that UT might not be risking as much as some believe. They cite as evidence the results of UT's admission in the early Eighties of a portion of each freshman class on a top 10% basis. These were students with combined SAT scores below 800, yet most of them earned grades only slightly below the class average. "The top 10% criterion does pick out students with grit and determination," one admissions officer said in The Nation.

Perhaps, then, one of the larger ironies to all this Hopwood anti-affirmative action fallout is that Texas is in a position to lead the nation in ensuring campus diversity without using race as a factor in admissions. The U.S. Dept. of Education is looking to Texas and its 24-member Texas Commission on a Representative Student Body for solutions to the affirmative action dilemma.

The commission, made up of businesspeople and public servants from all over the state, including former Austin legislator Wilhelmina Delco, met for the first time this week, and elected former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby as its chair. The commission is looking for ways to admit and graduate black and Hispanic students in numbers that reflect the state's demographics, and will report its findings to the Texas Higher Education Coalition - a group of college presidents and chancellors - next summer. The country is waiting for Texas to lead the way.

"I know the eyes of Washington are upon you," Sally Cain, regional representative for the education department, reportedly told a Texas advisory commission. "What you are about... is central to everything that we're trying to do at the national level."

Let's hope Texas makes history again - this time for the right reasons.


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