Regents_SM

SUNDEEP MALLADI/Herald photo

If the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approves a revised admissions policy today that includes non-academic factors such as race, the board might be in violation of state law, Regent President David Walsh admitted Thursday.

After a unanimous vote yesterday, the Board of Regents Education Committee approved the proposed revisions to the admissions policy and passed it along to the full board, which is expected to pass the revised policy today.

Though he believes the regents are within their legal rights to approve such a policy, Walsh told the board yesterday he — and the regents — might be proved wrong if they do.

"There's a very good argument [Wisconsin] state statutes do not preclude us from using race as a factor — not a determinant — but as a factor," Walsh said. "Now, we may be wrong in the long run, but until then, we have a challenge and we are responding to it."

And already one prominent state legislator is threatening legal action against the Board of Regents if it moves to approve the policy changes.

State Rep. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, sent a letter to Walsh Monday saying the proposed policy would be in violation of two state statutes prohibiting the use of "any tests based upon race" in admissions decisions.

If the board does approve the policy changes, as expected, spokesperson Mike Mikalsen said Nass will ask Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to rule on the legality of using non-academic factors in admissions decisions.

And, depending on the attorney general's ruling, Mikalsen said the Board of Regents might be vulnerable to potential litigation.

"Whether that would be the state suing, or a family of a student suing based on not gaining admission to the University of Wisconsin, there's likely to be litigation at some point," Mikalsen said in a phone interview Thursday. "The Supreme Court rulings do not preempt state statute."

If the board approves the proposed policy changes today, it would have no effect on UW-Madison, which has included non-academic factors in its admissions decisions for the past 12 years.

However, that did not prevent the system's flagship institution from being at the center of Thursday's debate.

UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley addressed the board during its morning session and advocated the use of non-academic factors in admissions decisions.

"Don't let anyone tell you that academic preparation is summarized adequately by grades, test scores, class ranks or any combination of the three," Wiley said. "Everything is in the details, not the aggregate statistics."

According to a copy of the drafted admissions policy, allowing state universities to consider whether an applicant is a "member of an historically underrepresented racial or ethnic group" would help UW System campus achieve a "diverse learning environment."

Addressing what he calls the "four misconceptions" of university admissions, UW System President Kevin Reilly also spoke at length on the importance of considering non-academic factors.

Specifically, Reilly said the revised policy is not "race-based" and would not result in unqualified students being admitted.

"If anything, it is a success-based policy," Reilly said. "It's no more a race-based policy than it is a veteran-based policy, or leadership-based policy."