Rewriting Race in Admissions

 

As a high-profile challenge to UT’s policies plays out, The Alcalde convened a roundtable of administrators, professors, and alumni to talk about where admissions should go from here.

In 2008, a Sugar Land senior named Abigail Fisher applied to The University of Texas. Like slightly less than half of those who apply to UT today, Fisher was not admitted.

She went on to LSU, but UT hadn’t heard the last of her. A white student, she sued the school, arguing that its consideration of race was unconstitutional. The federal district court upheld UT’s admissions system as compliant with the national legal precedent set in 2003. As of today, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Fisher’s case.

Because she hadn’t graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class, Fisher hadn’t been eligible for automatic admission. (Currently, 75 percent of the UT slots reserved for Texas students must be filled by “automatically admissible” students from the top 10 percent of their class.) Fisher wasn’t accepted in the full-file review of her application, either. (All applicants outside the top 10 percent received a holistic review back then, and all applicants receive one now no matter their percentage ranking).

The UT admissions system is complex, taking into account many factors. But if officials hadn’t known of the fact Fisher was white—in other words, if her holistic review had not included race—she contends she would have been admitted.

The Fisher case loomed large over campus in January, as The Alcalde convened a roundtable on the larger issue of race in admissions. Sweatt v. Painter, Hopwood v. Texas, Grutter v. Bollinger, and the rest of the cases that have decided education policy regarding race over the years—many centered on Texas—cast a long shadow, too.

Talk around the table ranged from personal stories to legal arguments, from the affirmative action of yesteryear to the holistic admissions policies of today. Here were our dinner guests, and what follows are some of the candid, challenging, and inspiring things they had to say.

  • Kedra Ishop, vice provost and director of admissions
  • Gregory Vincent, vice president of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement
  • Lino Graglia, A. Dalton Cross Professor of Law
  • Norma Cantú, professor of education and law; former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights
  • Machree Gibson, president of the Texas Exes
  • Victor Sáenz, assistant professor of education; named “One of 25 to Watch” diversity leaders in U.S. higher ed
  • Joe and Teresa Lozano Long, Austin philanthropists
  • Tim Taliaferro, moderator
  • Leslie Cedar, CEO & Executive Director of the Texas Exes; special guest
  • Lynn Freehill, editor

Taliaferro: Dr. Ishop, how is race currently used in admissions?

Kedra Ishop

Kedra Ishop: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor . . . said that race cannot be the single factor. Reading the full files was new to us post-Hopwood. Prior to that you could look in the viewbook and see class rank and test score and know whether you were admitted. After Hopwood we instituted a holistic process. When we review the file of an individual student we make a numeric assessment of what they can contribute to the campus and how have they achieved in context. Particularly in Texas, our schools are not all the same. To make that determination on the basis of standardized examination alone is not really understanding the context. Race, socioeconomic status, cultural background, and awareness are taken into account to understand in what context the student has achieved.

Taliaferro: Dr. Vincent, how important is racial diversity to the health of the campus?

Gregory Vincent: The mission of the University of Texas at Austin was to serve the people of Texas. So this idea of being able to have people from all parts of the state come so that they can go back to their communities and serve those communities . . . is essential. One of the very powerful stories I share is of our colleague, Dr. James Hill, a senior vice president. He was salutatorian of his class at Anderson High School. He by law could not attend the University. So race has always been a powerful part of this. It would be great to be able to say just as Dr. King said, content of character, but the reality is that’s not there. Machree gave one of the most powerful speeches that I have heard related to Dr. King about her father. That story resonates with people who love this state, love this University, but could not by law attend.

Taliaferro: Machree, tell us your dad’s story.

Gregory Vincent

Machree Gibson: I’m going to try. I lost my father New Year’s Eve. So that’s why I’m a little shaky and exhausted and tired.

I started the speech with my favorite Martin Luther King quote: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I talked about growing up here. I talked about UT because [the speech] was for the black faculty and staff.

Vincent: Machree’s father was a member of Mensa and a distinguished graduate who could not by law come to this University.

Gibson: He went to the University of Utah.

Vincent: [But he] demanded that both of his daughters go to UT.

Gibson: Demanded. I never understood why he was never bitter, except for that MLK quote. The last time I saw him, as they were wheeling him into surgery, he said, “I wish I could take the concerned looks off your faces.” Then, as they were rolling him out on the gurney, he said goodbye to us as he always said: “Hook ’em.”

Vincent: The reality is that race has been used to include and to exclude.

Joe Long: Well historically, race has always been, really, almost a predominant factor in the United States. If you go back to colonial times it was a factor. Today it’s a factor. There’s no use in acting like race is not a factor.

Machree Gibson

Taliaferro: Professor Graglia, is race a factor?

Lino Graglia: I would start by saying that I am all for love, and against hate. That has got absolutely nothing to do with this. Perhaps the clearest and simplest objection that I have to race preference in college admissions is that public officials should be willing to do this openly. They are not. They say they want diversity, they want role models, they want reparations for education, economics. All they want is more blacks. You want to pretend that blacks get into these selective schools. Very few can. The result is today we have a situation where [for] a selective school, the advantage of being black is 300 SAT points. For Mexican Americans it’s 150. For whites it’s the starting line, and for Asians it’s -150. The whole purpose of this is to make professors feel good. Pretense has high cost. It has to mean less academic success, more dropouts.

Taliaferro: Dr. Sáenz, you study this issue. Is that accurate?

Victor Sáenz: Well as you know, Professor Graglia, back in 2003 during the Grutter case many social scientists [and] legal scholars came together to build an empirical case for the educational benefits derived from diverse learning environments. A really eclectic mix of folks, including economists, sociologists, educational researchers, policy and legal folks, built a case around the compelling-interest doctrine or the issues around diversity. I hear you speaking to a defense of, in my mind, historically exclusionary policies. Yet here is evidence to the contrary. Viable, reasonable, empirical evidence for what many of us have often taken for granted as intuitive. [Researchers] actually took the time to codify, across a variety of psychosocial metrics, what benefits could be derived. That evidence can’t be completely ignored.

Lino Graglia

Vincent: How does a university get to determine what kind of class to put together? SAT scores were never designed to be the sole determinant. It is roughly the equivalent of picking a football team based on 40-yard-dash times. I think that certainly 40 times tell you something, but it is not the be-all end-all. How do we serve the people of Texas? The University of Texas wasn’t truly a great University until it served the people, all of the people, of Texas.

Gibson: It was not an inviting place [before].

Ishop: When I started [in admissions], my first market was in Houston, and I remember walking into Kimball High School, and the counselor came by. A gracious older woman my mother’s age. She sat me down and asked why in the world I would send my children to The University of Texas. This was in 1998. We can talk history and say that this was 80 years ago, but the history still permeates those who influence our kids. My father wasn’t thrilled about me coming to UT-Austin. That is still present in schools today.

Graglia: Victor, you said that I am defending exclusion—not at all. I am defending a simple proposition that no American should be disadvantaged because of their race.

Norma Cantú: But Professor, can a white be disadvantaged for the benefit of another white?

Graglia: I suppose they could.

Victor Saenz

Cantú: And Abigail Fisher had lower test scores than other whites. And that is what is troubling about the lawsuit: that a white woman who lost a slot to a white person blames a black for it. Ms. Fisher’s lawyers want an injunction that would prohibit individual African Americans from having their entire portfolio reviewed.

Graglia: She wants to prohibit them from having a 300-point advantage!

Cantú: We both want the same thing. We want to look at the truth. More data is better than less data.

Joe Long: I don’t think either side wants to look at the truth. They want to look at their side.

Graglia: The only significant data is: are you black? If you’re black and you ski in Switzerland in the winter, you’re in! This “disadvantage” is phony. Diversity is phony. More and more studies today are saying actually diversity is harmful. People get along better when it is homogeneous.

Taliaferro: Dr. Long, let me ask you about something that Dr. Vincent mentioned: that the University became great when it understood that it was about serving the people. What is your reaction to that?

Teresa Lozano Long: My view is that we are American citizens. If we do not educate all of our people, it is not helping our country. I have seen what has happened when people do get an education. They contribute to society. Whether it is through businesses, social services, or medical services, it makes [for] a better state. I come from an area where Mexican Americans couldn’t go to the theater, or had to go to the balcony. Our people came back from World War II, went to college, and went back to different parts of our state and started using the law to give us the opportunity to vote for mayors, for commissioners. It has been through education that we have done this.

Norma Cantu

Graglia: The Mexican-American situation was never comparable. It degrades the black situation to say that. The law prohibited black students.

Joe Long: There is no question about that, but there is also no question that Mexican Americans were discriminated against.

Graglia: We’re all for education, but the only question is [whether] these people [are] going to be admitted to a school where they do not meet the qualifications.

Cantú: That is exactly what the Fifth Circuit is saying to Ms. Fisher. That you are not qualified just because you need to follow the definition of merit set by an education institution, and the federal courts do not substitute their judgment for the mission of that campus and how campus administrators interpret that mission. Professor, we had this conversation 20 years ago. You and I met and you asked me what my background was. I told you I grew up in South Texas. I went to Pan Am, skipped UT, and went straight to Harvard, and you asked, ‘What were your SAT scores?’

Graglia: I don’t remember asking this.

Cantú: You are fixated on this SAT as a sole factor.

Graglia: I am fixated on [the notion] that students should be admitted to schools where they meet the original qualifications of others.

Joe Long

Cantú:Well, you’re not describing UT.

Taliaferro: Dr. Ishop, if tomorrow the Supreme Court said you can’t use race in admissions, how does that change your world?

Ishop: The SB-175 that augments the Top Ten Percent law would revert from 75 percent cap immediately to top 10 percent, which it was prior to the last legislature. We have had since 1998 the Top 10 Percent law, which was put into place after Hopwood, and SB-175, which gives us some capacity to make holistic decisions in our discretionary space, would revert immediately. We were at about 87 percent automatic admittance at the time we received the amendment. How that translated for Texas spaces was about a 94 percent acceptance rate, or a 6 percent acceptance rate for students who were not at the top 10 percent. That is more competitive than Harvard.

Taliaferro: So critics of the current use of race will point to the Top 10 Percent law and say it has done what we wanted—it has served as a proxy and has improved minority enrollment. But how much credit should we give it for the rise to minority enrollment versus outreach and recruiting?

Teresa Lozano Long: You need both.

Vincent: Let me just expand by saying, Dr. Ishop and her team have done a phenomenal job in outreach, and another very important part in this has been the Texas Exes. They have done a phenomenal job in working with the alums. The other thing is the use of scholarships.

Ishop: It is hypersensitive in Texas because we have so little space with which to work that quality becomes defined by another single factor, which is a test score. Who says that that [test scores] determine the student’s ability to succeed?

Graglia: Because they have no better indication.

Ishop: At what range? Is the definition graduating in four years; is the definition graduating with a 3.5?

Cantú: The American Psychological Association will tell you that those standardized test scores predict first-year performance, not college completion.

Teresa Lozano Long

Sáenz: I appreciate this opportunity to have this spirited dialogue. In many ways I think this table represents a microcosm of cognitive dissonance within diverse environments. That’s the point. The point is that the black kid grew up [in the] 5th Ward [of] Houston and the white kid grew up in Westlake or me on the border two miles from the river—[that] speaks to the richness of the diversity of experiences, but more importantly the opportunity for disparate people from disparate experiences to come together in safe and nurturing environment. [That] is what we all want to create within our classrooms, especially at a university like this.

Graglia: The point is there is no denying that the specially admitted do less well. You are just looking for blacks, and they do less well.

Vincent: Having actually served on a law school admissions committee, I can assure you, yes there was a threshold, yes could this person do the quality work, but you looked at other factors. One of the things that elite universities do well is select students who do well. Harvard knew what they were doing when they selected Norma Cantú. This wasn’t some stretch for them.

Cantú: UT offered me admission. Harvard came up with a full [scholarship].

Vincent: Who is in the best position to make the best decisions? Who am I going to trust to make an admissions decision? Dr. Ishop. She does it every day. There are black applicants who are rejected, and white students with lower scores who are admitted. So if the case was that all we wanted was black students we would say this is the threshold, if you just get there [we’ll] admit you. That’s just not the case.

Cantú: And that was part of the [court] record.

Graglia: This was done much worse originally. It began in 1968, because now we no longer segregate—we don’t keep the blacks out—and yet there are still so few blacks here. . . . That’s the objective of all this.

Cantú: I think the objective is a level playing field.

Graglia: It’s not level when you give people a 300-point SAT gap.

Cantú: That would certainly come out in the record somewhere, and it [has] not. The fact you are alleging of a 300-point SAT gap was never proven.

Leslie Cedar: I’m thinking about our average reader who loves the University. If our University was founded with the notion to be first class, and today our mission is to be the best public university from a teaching and research perspective. If we are a state university for Texas, what is our responsibility to mirror the population of the state of Texas?

Ishop: Your question about being representative about the state: that is not allowed by the courts. Race in admissions is not the same as affirmative action prior to 1998, where you had a separate admission track for students from different backgrounds. The two are often confused. But I can’t tell you at the end of our current admissions process whether or not a student benefited from the use of race. I can understand the argument otherwise, ‘Well, look, they have a lower test score so they must have benefited from the use of race’—but so did the oboe player that we admitted to Fine Arts.

Joe Long: What about football players?

Ishop: Football players, and we also have swimmers [who] have some of the highest SAT scores on campus. It’s a process that we all struggle with in admissions: never to say because this student is black they are going to benefit. If my charge were to admit more blacks, I’ve got them in the pool.

Vincent: The lowest admit rates in our group are African-American students.

Ishop: It’s not even that they don’t apply. Again, we have a dual-admissions process in our state. We turn away in our admissions process many, many high-quality minority students. Partially because we have parallel systems. A system that is competitive by holistic review, and a system that is automatically admissible [Top 10 Percent]. The two work well in tandem in Texas.

Vincent: Back to Leslie’s quote. One of the things the Top Ten Percent has done besides having more racial and ethnic diversity is geographic diversity. We have done a much better job of getting a geographic distribution.

Gibson: Actually, it really helped the rural Anglo students.

Ishop: We increased from 300 to almost 800 high schools—[though] we have also grown a lot of new high schools in Texas, so certainly we are not suggesting that it is all by virtue of Top Ten Percent.

Graglia: I have no objection to geographic diversity, although I think it does absolutely no good. When I was in Columbia Law School, the dean would often tell us how much diversity we have here. We have a student from Montana, South Dakota—what that meant was that we had two less Jews from Brooklyn. How this student from Montana instead of a smarter Jew from Brooklyn helped me or the school I didn’t know, but I don’t care. That’s not race, right? We’re not saying we have an official policy that this racial group cannot meet the ordinary requirements.

Vincent: Let’s be clear. There is no minimum SAT or GPA at UT.

Graglia: Let me tell you, Greg; there was a time at the law school where they openly had statistics. That figure for the presumpted admission for blacks was lower than the presumptive exclusion of whites and Asians.

Ishop: Thirteen years ago.

Graglia: Things haven’t changed. That was the only objective then, and it’s the objective now.

Ishop: I could have this discussion around my Thanksgiving table. We cannot apply the premise of affirmative action that had separate tracks for students [to] holistic review policies in existence now. [Affirmative action] in this institution does not exist.

Graglia: Yeah, but the holistic review was just a cover for the other policy.

Teresa Lozano Long: I believe we still have sort of the same problems we have had for several years, and it will continue, but The University of Texas has grown. It has become a much better school. I believe that we have more citizens involved in our state now—in businesses, schools, research, and so on—because of UT’s leadership. And the students, when they come here, it’s not always the rank they are going to make—it is [whether] they are involved, learning, getting along with other people. What are they going to do when they get out of here?

Joe Long: I think what we would all like to see is a fair system. We would all like to see every Texas student get a fair chance of coming here if they have the ability.

Graglia: Most people think that fair means that you don’t discriminate on the basis of race.

Joe Long: So look at this. Is today’s system more fair than 50 or 60 years ago?

GROUP: Yes. Absolutely, yes.

Joe Long: So have we made progress?

GROUP: Yes, yes.

Joe Long: So let’s keep making some, and quit arguing over minutae.

 

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