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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Questioning the admissions policy: UW professor emeritus brings race based admissions to the forefront

In a typical classroom at UW-Madison, a student will find only one minority student out of 10. This may seem logical in a state where nearly nine of ten inhabitants are white and a university where the vast majority of students come from that state.

The roots of this reality can be seen more immediately in the admission standards of this institution. However, efforts currently in place to bring minority students to Madison are under fire for their legal and moral implications.

Economics professor emeritus W. Lee Hansen, who has studied UW’s diversity and admissions practices extensively, recently printed advertisements in The Badger Herald and The Daily Cardinal claiming the university employs unfair and racially biased practices in its admissions process.

“UW-Madison is admitting and enrolling minority students who are not academically competitive,” Hansen said in a 2001 Herald editorial. “This practice is not fair to anyone — minorities who are admitted on their academic records, non-minority applicants who are denied admission, faculty, administrators and most especially, the minority admits themselves who are under-qualified relative to non-minority.”

Hansen proposed amending the UW admissions brochure to reflect more accurately what he feels are deceptive practices on the part of the university.

The undergraduate brochure for the 2002-03 school year said freshman admission is contingent on potential success.

“Admission is competitive and selective. We receive more than 18,000 freshman applications for a total class size of 5,700. Each year, we must turn away students who would clearly succeed at UW-Madison, but whose academic background, achievements and characteristics are not as strong as those of the students we do admit,” the brochure said.

With regard to special admissions, the brochure said personal attributes will be taken into account.

“We will also take into consideration personal characteristics that will contribute to the strength and diversity of the university community,” the brochure said.

Hansen said this is where his problem lies.

Associate admissions directors declined to comment on the university’s practices with respect to favoring minority admissions applications.

Plan 2008 is the UW System’s policy to increase diversity in the faculty and student body. It addresses the official position of the university administration with respect to diversity. The administration’s position was partially outlined in a faculty Senate resolution of 1998.

“When restrictions on the size of the freshman class make it necessary to select from among qualified applicants, the following criteria and priorities shall be used in order to implement the university’s goals of maximizing the success of students who are admitted to UW-Madison and of achieving a heterogeneous and ethnically diverse student body, ” the resolution said

The report also gave the criteria for evaluating applications when restrictions on the size of freshman classes are in place, which is currently the case.

“The primary criteria for admission shall be: Membership in a minority, disadvantaged, or other group for which the university faculty has authorized special outreach efforts. Qualified applicants in these special outreach groups shall normally be admitted,” the resolution said.

Hansen contends the ambiguous language of the policy is misleading to applicants about the criteria used to judge their viability as candidates.


Hansen, a former UW economics professor, said he came to his current positions after meeting opposition while questioning university practices.

“In the late ’70s I began looking into admissions practices but ran into a stone wall with the university,” he said. “Then, when Donna Shalala came along, I wrote a paper to the system administration saying this system wasn’t working. I began raising questions in the faculty Senate, and always being met with the difficulty of getting information from any one. In 1996 the Civil Rights Defense Coalition pressured David Ward to agree to some targets [for diversity] that were clearly unrealistic, so then I began writing on it.”

Hansen said his arguments are fundamentally based on the premises of equality for all applicants.

“In my view, race-based admissions relates to the fact that people are treated differently and that minorities are treated in a way that gives them an advantage over non-minorities based on race/ethnicity. ? affirmative action means to enlarge the pool and make resources available, with the proviso; other things being equal, that the minority would get a preference,” Hansen said.

Hansen said the differences between “racial profiling” and “affirmative action” are difficult areas, but that the university’s current practices may cross the line into illegal activities in violation of Wisconsin’s state statute 36.12, protecting discrimination in public education by race, gender, religion and other factors.

“There is a gray area in between [acceptable and unacceptable affirmative action practices],” Hansen said. “A lot of people accepted [racial preferences] in the past, especially with respect to women. But this is definitely biased.”


Chancellor John Wiley, in a March 12 opinion piece in The Badger Herald, said while UW is “committed to affirmative action,” the university in no way has “policies or practices” that could be “reasonably characterized as ‘race preferences.'”

Wiley said his choice of words was both well considered and well founded.

“I thought long and hard about whether or not to use that particular phrase ? in my view, [racial preferences] has become a lightning-rod phrase,” he said. “No one ever intended that affirmative action would be a process where less qualified minorities would be chosen over others. We are simply obliged to do things ‘affirmatively’ and to take ‘action’ to try to improve the situation of minority representation, whether it is hiring or admissions.”

Wiley also said the characteristics separating successful and unsuccessful applicants are extremely complex.

“We spend a lot of time and effort in recruitment. One of the fundamental flaws in [Hansen’s] arguments and comparison is that in order to compare the admissions rates of group A versus group B and to say that one or the other was treated differently just because of what you used to label A and B, then you have to show that everything else about those two groups, except for the one factor, was completely the same.”

UW law professor James Jones, who served under several presidential administrations, worked as a legal advisor when the first affirmative action guidelines were formed with respect to labor practices in the 1960s.

“In 1961, a John F. Kennedy executive order, unlike any previous attempts [to ban racial considerations in government contracts], said ‘affirmative action should be taken to ensure equality of employment opportunity. That is the modern birth of the term.”

Jones said even Wisconsin was not immune to scrutiny for racial practices.

“When Wisconsin statutes mandated these principles, the colleges in the state, other than the doctoral clusters, were under indictment from the federal government for discrimination against negro students,” he said.

Jones said the legal foundations of affirmative action allow the chancellor and the university to pursue the practices Hansen questions.

“Affirmative action in its ideal sense has little to do with your rights against my rights, but the system’s effort to correct processes that have been in place forever; instead of what they always did: exclusion,” Jones said. “When you talk about preference, the chancellor is in the best position to say that we don’t have a system of racial preference. We have a system where race can be a factor ? but so is being from Idaho, or a left-handed flute player, or whatever.”

Wiley said regardless of the angle the university takes with regard to race practices in admission, each application is given equal consideration.

“We do review every application one by one, by hand,” he said. “Sometimes, we find people in the lower ranges who weren’t encouraged to apply, but who look like they have everything it takes to succeed here despite some low numbers. They turn out to be a smaller percentage of majority students, but because there are still so many more majority applicants, they turn out to be much larger numbers than of minorities.”

Wiley said given a situation where two students, equally qualified on paper, differed only along racial lines, the minority student would “probably” have an admissions advantage. However, he said this did not constitute racial preferencing.

“So many things are looked at in applications that there really isn’t a situation where people are exactly equal in all of their dimensions except race,” Wiley said.

Despite requirements for admission, Wiley said exceptions are made.

“In order to get in, a minimum requirement is you must be in the top half of the class, you must submit an ACT score, you must have taken certain classes. All that is true. However, state and regent policy makes it very clear that those are the rules for what they identify as ‘normal’ admissions. They also tell us that we should be willing to make exceptions. And we do that.”

Jones said he has seen significant progress in the way colleges attract and retain students, but that climate issues remain a problem.

“The university has a very sophisticated selection process. They don’t let anybody in who they don’t think can make it here,” Jones said “When I was coming up, it didn’t matter that I had a 3.75, I could not go to the university of Arkansas or Missouri as a matter of my color.”


The goal of Plan 2008 is also being advocated and pursued by student government.

Marion Ecks, ASM Plan 2008 coordinator, said students are involved in Plan 2008 oversight committee, and she heads a campaign independent of that committee.

“We’re working on the issue of minority retention to get together a survey for withdrawing students and then administer that survey to students to find some reasons and hopefully some answers,” Eck said.

ASM cites the example of UW’s law school, which boasts a minority enrollment of 25 percent, versus 12 percent in undergraduate enrollment, as a goal to strive for.

Elizabeth Kransberger, the law school’s associate dean for admissions and financial aid, said although minority students are not given advantages when applying, a pro-active approach to minority attraction and retention has paid off.

“We make strong efforts to create a welcoming environment for everyone,” Kransberger said. “We make a point to contact every eligible minority applicant across the country.”

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