University of Florida students Marilyn Basillo and Lydia Washington are real-life examples of Gov. Jeb Bush’s legal argument that race-based college admissions should be outlawed at the University of Michigan and everywhere else.
The two minority students represent Florida’s success so far in maintaining racial diversity at its premier university in the two years since the governor abolished affirmative action with his “One Florida” plan.
Florida’s example could help the U.S. Supreme Court decide this spring whether to throw out the strategy of racial preferences used for decades by America’s best colleges and universities to enroll more black, Hispanic and American Indian students.
Civil-rights activists and most higher-education leaders want the court to uphold Michigan’s admissions policy, which is being challenged by white students. Supporters say that considering race when choosing applicants is the most practical way to manage a college-admissions game that otherwise relies on entrance exams favoring white and Asian students.
But this month, Florida’s governor and his brother, President Bush, entered the Michigan case by filing legal arguments making the opposite point: that affirmative action’s time has gone, and that they have found a better way.
“Florida’s experience under Governor Jeb Bush’s One Florida Initiative demonstrates that diversity can be attained through race-neutral means,” the governor states in his legal brief to the court.
Florida’s end to affirmative action came a few years after its end in California and Texas, where the president was governor at the time. Since then, universities in these states devised alternate strategies – with mixed results.
They aggressively recruit in inner-city high schools, offer academic help for students and teachers in those schools, guarantee spots for top students from every high school and follow more-complex admissions standards, which replace “race” with such vague factors as “overcoming hardship.”
Minority enrollment at Florida’s 11 public universities has held mostly steady since One Florida, with some increases.
But historically, affirmative action has been critical only at the most elite universities and graduate and professional schools – institutions that always had the highest admission standards and the toughest competition among applicants.
These schools, especially in California and Texas, have had the most difficulty maintaining diversity without overtly considering the races of applicants. Florida’s most selective public school, New College of Florida – a tiny liberal-arts college in Sarasota – virtually failed to attract minority students, enrolling just one black freshman and nine Hispanics this fall.
UF, Florida’s most selective full-size university, bucked the trend somewhat. Minority enrollment dropped modestly in the first two years of One Florida but rebounded this past fall.
After rockier starts, the California and Texas university systems also have managed to increase overall numbers of black and Hispanic students. But their elite schools – the University of Texas at Austin, University of California at Berkeley and University of California at Los Angeles – suffered dramatic declines. So did their best law, medical and business schools.
At both UC-Berkeley and UCLA, this year’s freshman class still was less than 4 percent black, and UT-Austin’s was about 3 percent black. That is significantly below the percentages of blacks in those states.
UT-Austin law Professor Douglas Laycock said Texas is making progress, but he considers the alternative strategies to be impractical and ultimately. For example, UT arranged with airlines to fly potential law-school applicants to Austin for free, only to discover it cost too much and didn’t help enough.
What’s more, Laycock said, aggressive recruiting loses effectiveness if every school does it, competing in the same pool of minority applicants.
“There is a desperate belief that we can add diversity without addressing race,” he said. “But the magic bullet isn’t there.”
California’s progress has been even slower since voters banned affirmative action there by approving Proposition 209 in 1996. A flurry of creative high-school-outreach programs have helped some universities, but not all – at least not enough.
At flagship UC-Berkeley, black, Hispanic and American Indian students made up half as much of the 2001 freshmen class as in the 1997 class.
“Since that time, both admissions and enrollment have been climbing, and applicants as well; however, we have not yet come to pre-Prop 209 levels,” said Richard Black, UC-Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment.
“We’re working very hard at this, but I would say that it is unclear whether we can regain those numbers.”
Former Harvard University President Derek Bok, co-author of the highly influential pro-affirmative-action book, The Shape of the River, said the issue is not one of making up for past discrimination but of meeting current needs.
“Diversity enriches education. You get really quite remarkable percentages of students, white as well as minority, who believe a diverse student body has been a valuable part of their education,” Bok said.
“The second thing is that all the major professions have articulated, in one way or another, that they really need more diversity,” he said. “That’s why they have written amicus briefs on behalf of the program. The same is true in business. Over 30 major corporations have written amicus briefs.”
The man most responsible for ending affirmative action in California, University of California Regent Ward Connerly, calls the diversity argument a crutch. Connerly, who is black, said any commitment to diversity inevitably leads states and universities to cheat, by finding other ways to account for race.
Connerly briefly ran a drive in Florida to abolish affirmative action, then backed off after Bush announced One Florida.
“If it’s the goal of government to achieve a preordained outcome (of diverse admissions) based on race, then I suppose Florida is probably the most successful,” Connerly said. “I quarrel with that goal, however.
“The obligation of government is to make sure it treats its citizens equally, without regard to the color of their skin, their ancestors, their national origin, their – quote – race, whatever that means. There is nothing more compelling than that in my view,” he said.