Since 1972, UW-Madison has used race-based preferences in its admissions practices. This system, initially introduced to right past wrongs, has been used in recent years to increase campus diversity.
Due to this practice, UW accepts some black and Hispanic students with lower grades and test scores over white and Asian students with higher grades and test scores.
Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta struck down the University of Georgia’s practice of awarding students bonus points for skin color during admissions procedures.
“Racial diversity is not necessarily the hallmark of a diverse student body,” the appeals court justices said, and added that the university “did not even come close” to making the case that having students of a variety of different racial groups equals diversity.
However, Multicultural Student Coalition member Sarah Wegner said racial diversity is important to making students comfortable on campus.
“Most of the time I don’t feel comfortable,” Wegner said. “I can put up with it, but being the only student of color in a class is hard. A lot of times, there is a lot of ignorance.”
The justices in the Georgia case saw racial diversity and general diversity as two separate entities, but many fuse them into one. Diversity, including racial diversity, is seen as an important part of campus life.
“Diversity helps to create a warmer campus climate,” Wegner said.
Though the decision is not binding for UW, it is being carefully analyzed by attorneys and administrators at universities nationwide.
“[The decision] should deal a lethal blow to the diversity rationale used by many universities,” University of California Regent Ward Connerly said.
Connerly was the first to make racial preferences a public issue when he succeeded in getting an initiative on the ballot in California in 1996 that barred UC from using race in admissions.
“The UW attorneys have analyzed this decision and are shaking in their boots,” Connerly said.
The UW admissions office could not be reached for comment on this issue.
Legal scholars predict this latest ruling will force the Supreme Court to take up the issue for the first time since 1978.
However, Patricia Brady, UW System deputy general counsel, said the decision does not impact the UW System directly.
“Our policy is not like the Georgia policy,” she said.
Brady said race can be considered in the admissions process.
Frederic Mohs, an attorney and member of the UW Board of Regents, said he has a difficult time determining how racial preferences are used in the UW admissions process.
“There are no numbers; there are no files,” he said. “It is opaque. It is all done orally with no written records. It’s definitely an attempt to protect the UW admissions office from legal discovery.”
Wegner acknowledged the system is not perfect, but said the correct decision is to change, not eliminate, the current policy.
“The system we have in effect is helping somewhat, but it is not helping as much as it could help,” Wegner said. “It needs to be looked at.”
The written description of UW’s use of racial preferences is a one-and-a-half-page document the UW Director of Admissions, Rob Seltzer, prepared for the Board of Regents in July.
This document states, “All applications pass through a single review process, and all applications are reviewed individually and holistically.”
It also emphasizes, “We have no targets, quotas, nor numerical goals for any particular group of applicants.”