University complies with anti-affirmative-action initiative

By Ethan Bronner

The New York Times, November 7, 1998

In the first concrete result of Tuesday’s passage of an anti-affirmative action referendum in Washington state, the University of Washington says it is regretfully suspending its 30-year practice of race-conscious admissions.

University officials say they are also reviewing a set of programs that may be affected by the initiative, which bars “preferential treatment” to any group based on race or gender in the public sector. Those other programs include ones that encourage women to enter the field of engineering and African-Americans to go into mathematics.

While the university, whose main campus is in Seattle, does not have a large minority enrollment, officials there say they have relied on race-conscious admissions policies to increase those numbers over the years.

About 100 members of the current freshman class, representing some 24 percent of its minority students, would not have been admitted without race-conscious policies, according to Ernest Morris, vice president for student affairs. The university calculates that over the past three decades, it has admitted and graduated more than 5,000 minority students through their preferential admissions plan.

“We have taken steps to suspend the use of race and gender in admissions,” Morris said. “But we are determined to do everything we can within the law to maintain the diversity of the student body. The numbers are relatively small as is, so we’re just going to have to look very carefully at ways to get those students to enroll here.”

Of the undergraduate population at the University of Washington — the state’s only public university that says it has used affirmative action in its admissions — some 2.8 percent are black, 3.8 percent are Hispanic American and 1.5 percent American Indian. Asian-Americans, who make up 19 percent of the student body, are not considered “underrepresented minorities” by the university and their admissions would not be affected.

System-wide, there are 37,500 students, both undergraduate and graduate, at the university.

Washington is the second state, after California, to pass a voter initiative banning preferential treatment, and the language of the resolution in Washington, called I-200, mirrors that of the 1996 California initiative known as Proposition 209.

Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi have also been barred from considering race and gender in university admissions by a federal court ruling.

The Washington initiative, which passed with 58 percent of the vote, says: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.”

But the state attorney general’s office in Seattle says there is an important difference between its new law and the one in California. In California, the resolution amended the state constitution and so overrode any conflicting statutes. The Washington initiative is simply a statute like any other and must be interpreted in light of competing statutes.

Since there are other state laws calling for “affirmative action” or enhanced opportunities for women and minority-group members in state employment and contracting, the meaning of barring “preferential treatment” is unclear, the office said in a statement.

Christine Hughes, a senior assistant attorney general representing the university, said there were no conflicting statutes regarding university admissions, so affirmative action in admissions could be suspended without confusion.

Other university programs that may be affected will continue while the meaning of the law is worked out. Such programs include ones that encourage women and minority members already at the university to go into engineering and math, areas heavily dominated by white men.

It is also unclear how much recruiting and outreach to minorities and women would be permissible under the new statute, she said.

The university’s law school is the defendant in a reverse discrimination class-action lawsuit over the practice of admitting minority students with lower grades and test scores than whites.

The lawsuit, similar to one against the University of Michigan, was filed in 1997 by the Center for Individual Rights, which is based in Washington D.C., as part of its campaign to end race-conscious admissions policies across the country.

But Ms. Hughes, the university lawyer, said that since the main goal of the lawsuit is to end race-conscious admissions practices, and that has now occurred through I-200, there seemed little reason for the suit to go forward.

Terence Pell, senior counsel at the center, said that if I-200 really ends such admissions practices, “that is a tremendous victory.” But, he added, his group is waiting to see how the university changes its admissions policies in practice before taking its next step.

Eric Schnapper, a law professor at the University of Washington, said another complication of I-200 is how it affects American Indian tribes, of which there are many in Washington.

He said laws giving American Indians special privileges are a vital part of state policy and that federal policies toward Indians are based not on race or efforts at diversity but on political arrangements resulting from numerous conflicts and treaties over the years.