US colleges fear turning colour blind

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The Independent Online
As the academic year draws to an end on campuses across the United States, there is a growing - and slightly shocked - recognition that an era is also coming to a close. Affirmative action, the policy that discriminated in favour of applicants from ethnic minority groups, is being abolished in two of America's largest state university systems, and the effect has startled friends and enemies of the policy alike.

The autumn 1997 intake at the graduate school of law at the University of California at Berkeley, for instance, will have 80 per cent fewer black students than last year. Admissions of Hispanics have fallen by half. The result will be a Berkeley law-student body that is 2 per cent black, 5 per cent Hispanic and more than 90 per cent white and Asian.

At the University of Texas at Austin, the law school could end up with no black students at all. According to a spokeswoman, one African American was offered a place, but he turned it down because he felt he would be in the media spotlight.

It is still too early to say exactly what the effect of the new "race- blind" policy will be. The highly selective law schools are the first to make their data public. And while the University of Texas has abolished affirmative action across the board from this year, the University of California has abolished it only for graduates, with undergraduate admissions being affected only from 1998.

If initial trends continue, however - and the universities believe they will - the ethnic diversity that has transformed the face, and often the curriculum, of American universities over a generation will vanish within three years. Universities will no longer be anything like a "picture of America"; they will revert to being predominantly white institutions, with a growing number of Asians.

In abolishing affirmative action, both California and Texas have bowed to a combination of public pressure and specific legal decisions. In California, university sources acknowledge that there were regular complaints over the years when "star" school-pupils failed to gain a place. After 20 years of rumbling guerrilla warfare, the university reviewed the results of affirmative action through 1995. Last year, in a separate move, California voters approved Proposition 209, legislation that requires state institutions to be "race-blind".

In Texas, the change came suddenly, precipitated by a disgruntled applicant's successful lawsuit. Other states, and probably the federal authorities as well, are expected to follow suit.

If certain sections of public opinion are cock-a-hoop about the change, however, the mainstream US media and the universities are extremely cagey. They worry about the social implications if black and Hispanic students are effectively excluded from universities and courses with the most prestige.

The universities of California and Texas have launched initiatives to try to mitigate the effects of "race-blind" admissions. While undertaking to give more weight to test scores, as the law now requires, they are considering weighting for social or economic "disadvantage". In California, personal essays that show evidence of ability to overcome adversity will count in a candidate's favour.

Texas, for its part, is considering guaranteed places in higher education for the top 10 per cent of pupils at every state school, a policy designed to favour pupils from poorer schools.

All these efforts stem from the view, held strongly by many university staff, that a university should strive to be not just an academic meritocracy, but a "personal learning and socialising experience" for the students. One member of staff at Berkeley, asked whether academic excellence was not the very purpose of a university, responded that this was "a widely held lay view" but "simplistic".

Whatever rearguard action the universities mount to defend affirmative action, however, officials agree that the first results of abolishing it pose disturbing questions. If the proportion of minority students falls so drastically when they have to compete on equal terms, does this mean that the efforts of the past 20 years have been in vain?

The fact that the initial figures relate only to graduate school admissions makes matters, in some ways, worse. After all, those competing for graduate courses have already completed undergraduate studies with above average grades.

The difficulty is that even in the event that the overall proportion of ethnic minority students in higher education is not greatly affected, higher education could become conspicuously stratified, with most blacks and many Hispanics eliminated from disciplines like law and medicine that lead to the highest earning and most influential jobs.