Bill on UW admission has an uphill battle

By Kyle Arnold

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 16, 2005

When voters approved Initiative 200 and prohibited state agencies from using affirmative action, minority applicants to the University of Washington declined as did diversity at the state’s flagship campus.

UW officials say I-200 hurt the school’s – and the state’s – image with minorities, making it appear unwelcoming.

“I know that there are some minority families in this state that have decided they are not going to send their children to a college in this state because of I-200,” said Tim Washburn, the UW’s associate vice president of enrollment services.

Through aggressive recruitment and diversity scholarships supported by private citizens, racial diversity is back up, but the UW still has problems with the 6-year-old law. Now UW officials are lobbying the Legislature to amend the initiative and allow state colleges and universities to again consider race in the admissions process.

If there’s no action on the idea this week, it’s unlikely anything will happen this legislative session.

Senate Bill 5575 is sponsored by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, a part-time women’s studies lecturer at the UW. But despite the vocal support the UW has been giving the bill, and a Democratic majority in both houses of the Legislature, it still has a tough road ahead and needs to pass the narrowly divided Senate this week.

The measure allows state universities to use race as a factor in admissions, without using quotas or a points system as they did in the past.

But some are furious with legislators for even considering amending the law that nearly 59 percent of voters passed in 1998.

John Carlson, the former GOP gubernatorial candidate who led the I-200 campaign, said considering race at universities would mean that other more qualified students won’t get into the increasingly crowded system. “The days of dividing people by race and treating them differently are over, and the public was quite adamant on this point at the polls six years ago,” he said at a hearing on the bill last month.

UW officials say a change in the law is critical after years of trying to make the UW more diverse without considering race.

The year after I-200 passed, the UW’s freshman class had one-third fewer black students and 65 fewer Hispanics. Those numbers have steadily risen to pre-I-200 levels through greater outreach and private diversity scholarships, Washburn said.

But the increase in minority enrollment has come at a cost to applicants, school officials say. It now takes almost 100 more black applicants to get the same number of admissions offers, as offer rates have dropped to 55.6 percent, compared with 70.2 percent for white students.

More minority students are applying to the UW than ever, Washburn said, and the numbers are very encouraging to the school. But of the nearly 40,000 students at the university, only 1,049 blacks and 1,361 Hispanics are enrolled as of the 2004 fall quarter.

In order to increase diversity, Washburn said, the UW uses “socio-economic” factors in determining whether to accept a student. Students from poorer families and school districts or who have had economic hardships earn extra points in the admissions process.

“In order to achieve our diversity, we have to look at our socio-economic factors, and there we find some measure of diversity,” Washburn said. “But the students may not always be as well qualified as some others that don’t display those characteristics.”

He said under the proposed law, the UW could stop weighing “socio-economic” factors so heavily and choose minority applicants who are more qualified but don’t necessarily show any economic hardships.

Instead of the system the UW uses now in which freshmen are given points for grades, test scores, Advanced Placement classes and various other factors, applications would be graded on a subjective basis and potential students will be given an overall grade.

In a column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, UW President Mark Emmert said there is pressure for universities to graduate a more diverse group of students. He said businesses want students who are familiar with diversity, and by increasing racial diversity, all students benefit socially when they enter the job market.

While the UW is banking on a change of law, it is a sensitive topic for lawmakers.

Kohl-Welles, who tried to pass a similar bill last year, said most legislators who support the bill are afraid of turning their backs on voters.

The concept of affirmative action hasn’t been embraced by the entire UW campus, either. In 2003, a bake sale by the UW’s College Republican group tried to highlight the follies of affirmative action by varying the price of baked goods depending on the buyer’s race. The bake sale sparked a campuswide debate, dividing affirmative action supporters and opponents.

College Republican President Nick Dayton spoke against the bill during a public hearing on it last month. He said race doesn’t determine what kind of contributions a person can make to a university.

“You can’t know something about someone’s background or their income level unless you go up and ask them and talk to them,” Dayton said.

Tim Eyman, who is heading the campaign against SB5575, says the proposal guts the voter’s intent in I-200 and the UW’s recent freshmen classes are its most diverse in history.

But UW officials don’t think statistics from 1998 are a fair standard for diversity. “I don’t think anyone is satisfied with the diversity accomplishments that were achieved in 1998, everyone believes that was a step along the way,” Emmert said.