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Florida ruling an affront to admissions

WE MAY HAVE won a victory, but we haven't won the war. This past fall, the Board of Visitors voted unanimously to uphold the University's current race-conscious admissions policy, despite outside pressure from right wing groups, specifically the ironically named Center for Equal Opportunity, to eliminate the policy. Supporters of affirmative action programs heralded the Board's decision as a definitive victory, supporting the right to consider race, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic level as a factor -- though not as a determinant -- in admissions decisions. Unfortunately, the future of affirmative action-type programs at the University may not be as certain as some might think, as other states have voted similar programs out of their universities.

Two weeks ago, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of presidential hopeful Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), passed his proposal to remove traditional affirmative action from Florida higher education. In a 12-0 vote, the Florida Board of Regents decided to eliminate race-conscious admissions in favor of a system where the top 20 percent of high school graduates will be admitted automatically to state-sponsored universities. While the idea of adopting a clear, numerical standard for comparing applicants may sound appealing on paper, in reality the system will cause more problems than solutions. It will hurt all students, not just minorities.

All universities are looking to attract the best-qualified students they can. Along these lines, students' grades, standardized test scores and class rank are of almost insurmountable importance when a college decides whether to admit the student or not. Admissions departments look for students with good numbers in high school because, in many cases, high scores translate into strong performance at the collegiate level.

That is to say, most of the time they do, but not always. Every year, colleges accept students with lower than average grades and test scores because the students have distinguished themselves in other ways. The way most schools approach admissions is to look at the student as a whole, and make a decision based on the individual, not strictly on a series of numbers.

The problem with the Florida system is that not only do people become mere numbers, but also they become numbers that are not necessarily statistically sound. By setting an across the board standard of 20 percent, Florida schools no longer can take into account other concerns such as school size, class size, academic rigor and demographics -- all of which will determine the quality and diversity of students at the schools.

For example, take two high schools, one with a population of a hundred students and another of a thousand. From the smaller one, 20 students would be eligible for admissions, while from the bigger, 200 could be admitted. Seems fair, right? Not necessarily.

Suppose that the school of a thousand is much better than the school of a hundred, and consequently there are more than 200 people who would be qualified. Or flip-flop it and have the smaller school have more deserving people than the 20 percent quota allows. Any way you slice it, the potential for qualified candidates to be left out and for unworthy ones to be admitted is readily apparent. When strict numerical standards are set, like in Florida, they take away the ability to compare schools and students qualitatively, which is of utmost importance if the college or university's goal is to put together the strongest class possible.

With this legislation, Florida isn't making progress -- it's regressing. Supporters of the change say that the new system is fairer and more egalitarian than the old, "biased" programs of the past. But what system could be fairer than treating each applicant as an individual with a unique background, a unique heritage and a unique perspective?

So far, affirmative action has been shot down in California and Florida, and, lamentably, it's almost assured that other states will follow suit in the near future. The University community has weighed in on this issue -- through President John T. Casteen III's open letter, a Faculty Senate resolution, a Student Council resolution and the Board of Visitors' resolution, all supporting current admissions policies -- but that may not be enough. So long as affirmative action is being challenged and consequently eradicated nationally, the University is not safe. If we believe as firmly in our policies as our past statements suggest, we cannot rest on laurels and expect that nothing bad will happen; we must be proactive in our resistance. Otherwise, we may be the next to go.

(Rob Walker is a Cavalier Daily associate editor.)

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