Posted on December 2, 2004

UGA: Let Race Count

Kelly Simmons, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 1, 2004

The University of Georgia could return to using race as a factor in freshman admissions as early as next fall.

A faculty committee has recommended adding diversity criteria, including race and ethnicity, to its admissions policy in time for selecting the fall 2005 freshman class.

It would be the first time in five years that UGA would be using race in admissions decisions. The university abandoned its previous race-conscious policy in 2001 after a federal judge ruled the practice unconstitutional.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that schools could use race as a factor in admissions as long as it was not the sole criterion.

Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said the proposed UGA policy appears to meet the guidelines established by the Supreme Court ruling.

“This is wholly compatible with the majority opinion, which urges individual consideration, permits race as a plus factor and encourages schools to look at additional non-race-based factors,” Steinbach said.

Students had mixed opinions.

Sophomore Todd South of Athens said Wednesday that while he believes the campus should be diverse, admissions should be “strictly merit-based.”

But senior Courtney Joiner said factoring in race and geography is the right thing to do.

“UGA should be on a mission to bring students from all high schools [in the state] — not just those in the metro Atlanta area — to school here,” said Joiner, who is from Lyons, in southeast Georgia.

Joiner said she is one of just three African-Americans to enroll at UGA from Lyons in the last four years. “I don’t think a lot of students consider UGA as an option,” she said.

Andrew King, a freshman from Macon, suggested race should play a small role in admission.

“The intention is good,” said King, who was born in South America. “UGA should be more than just a lot of rich white kids.”

Race, origin, language, skills

The recommendation to change the policy was distributed to members of the Faculty Admissions Committee at a meeting Oct. 12. The Journal-Constitution obtained information on the policy through an open records request.

The policy change would allow UGA to use the following factors in deciding whether to admit a student applicant: a student’s race or ethnicity, where a student is from, whether the student speaks a foreign language or has familiarity with a foreign country, and whether the student possesses a talent that would benefit the university.

The admissions office already uses some nonacademic criteria to evaluate applicants, including students’ creativity, community involvement and integrity.

Admissions officials stressed that the majority of admissions would be based solely on superior academic performance, and all admitted students would be qualified.

UGA reviews each freshman applicant’s file individually, the officials said. Applicants who do not meet minimum qualifications are rejected. Those who are academically superior are admitted. Other applications are given a second review.

Remaining spaces in the freshman class and positions on the waiting list go to students who meet academic requirements and who possess other characteristics that are considered beneficial to the university, the officials said.

UGA Professor Robert Gatewood is chairman of the faculty committee that developed the recommendation that would allow race as a factor in admissions.

“Diversity was one of the characteristics the committee felt was important,” Gatewood said.

Attorney general’s approval

University officials have sought legal opinions on the issue in an effort to avoid lawsuits. In a letter to the Board of Regents dated Oct. 22, Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker’s office said the policy appears to follow the principles set forth by the Supreme Court ruling.

But the attorney general’s office encouraged the university to determine how long the special criteria would need to be used to diversify the student body sufficiently.

Del Dunn, UGA vice president for instruction, said his office is studying that question. “It’s a very complex kind of consideration,” he said.

UGA President Michael Adams declined to comment on the recommendation, which will come to him for approval. He has indicated in the past that he believes diversity should be a factor in deciding who is admitted to the state’s flagship university.

Racial diversity has been an ongoing challenge for the Athens campus, which has a black student enrollment of about 5.6 percent, well below the 23 percent average across the University System of Georgia.

Black admissions decline

Only 200 African-Americans are enrolled in UGA’s current freshman class of 4,500, a 26 percent decline from last year.

Applications fell three years ago when UGA was forced to dismantle its point-based admissions system. A lawsuit that led to that action was filed on behalf of four white females who were denied admission in the fall of 1999.

Until then, 10 percent to 15 percent of the university’s applicants for admission were evaluated under a Total Student Index, in which students received a statistical boost if they met any of 12 criteria, including being non-Caucasian. Children of alumni and applicants from under-represented areas of the state also were given preference.

Since then, students have been admitted primarily based on academic performance, although a student essay and extracurricular activities also are considered.

UGA has taken some steps to increase African-American enrollment, including putting a recruiter in DeKalb County.

Alternatives ‘have failed’

In March, the University Council, which is made up of faculty representatives from each department of the school, endorsed using diversity as a factor in admitting some students. “Race-neutral alternatives at the University of Georgia have failed to achieve the critical mass of racially and ethnically diverse students to achieve a rich learning environment in our academic community,” the council said.

Some students also are trying to address the issue. Junior Julian Williams of Daculaand two other students are organizing other African-Americans at UGA to recruit black students. The group will hold a forum tonight to discuss issues facing minority students at UGA.

Williams said the university needs to dispel its negative image among African-Americans if it wants to attract more black students.

“I love Athens,” said Williams, who is a walk-on player on the men’s varsity basketball team. “Everything about the university has been good. There are so many things here you can take advantage of.”

Dunn said UGA is exploring ways to improve its image among black high school students and to strengthen its recruitment efforts by reaching out to middle school students.

“I think we’ve known and felt we needed to do a better job with our pre-collegiate programs,” Dunn said. “The recruitment process needs to reach further and further back.”