Staying the course becomes a rallying cry

UGA stands by race-conscious admissions policy; opportunity for all is fundamental, says President Adams

B Y - S H A R R O N - H A N N O N

T he University of Georgia and the University of Virginia shared a headline in the Oct. 8 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The accompanying article noted that the "two elite public universities" were heading in different directions in their use of race as a factor in admissions decisions.

"My mom and dad pointed me toward this institution as a lofty goal. When Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes came along, I heard a lot about them at home."

Hilton Young (BSEd '79)
President of the National Alumni Association

What was it like to be an African-American student at UGA in the 1970s
Young:
It wasn't a very warm environment. Typically, I was the only African-American student in my classes. Student life was very geared toward the majority population and the University wasn't very aggressive about making sure all students felt included. So that made it challenging.

I lived in McWhorter, the athletic dorm, which was an island unto itself. The year before I came to UGA, the football team was integrated. My freshman year there were about 15 of us, out of maybe 60 to 80 players total. It was still a very new experience for everybody and there was a lot of tension. Because of that, the team didn't quite jell on the field. We should have been better than we were.

After the '74 season, Coach Dooley and the other coaches decided they had to do something to bring us together, so they started planning activities that everyone had to attend. Once we started doing things together, we became a better team. In '76 we won the SEC championship and played in the Sugar Bowl. To this day, my teammates and I feel great affection and friendship for each other.

Why did you want to come to UGA?
Young:
I've told the story a lot about being a child who lived in the projects in Athens and about selling Cokes in the stands at Sanford Stadium on football Saturdays. I didn't see any players who looked like me on the field, but I still wanted to wear the red and black. I just had this dream inside me.

It was really my mom and dad who pointed me toward this institution as a lofty goal. When Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes came along, I heard a lot about that at home. I only wish my parents could have been there when I got to speak at Commencement last year as the new president of the National Alumni Association. That was such an awesome experience to be there in Sanford Stadium greeting the graduates and their families.

What are your thoughts about being the first African-American president of the National Alumni Association?
Young:
The most historic thing about that is that my race is not an issue. I think people look at me as a person they felt could get the job done. I've been involved in alumni activities for 12 years and worked my way up to this position. I'm going to focus on trying to do the best job I can.

What is your role in terms of recruiting more minority students and faculty?
Young:
My job is to energize alumni to spread the good news about the University of Georgia. I want to help build a sense of excitement about who we are, so that when students or faculty are being recruited they can sense it. We want people talking about our standards of excellence—in academics, athletics, all areas.

"I was born in 1962, the year after the University of Georgia was integrated, so it's only within my lifetime that minorities have had access to this institution."

Marie Cochran (BFA '85)
Professor, Lamar Dodd School of Art

What was it like to be an African-American student at UGA in the 1980s?
Cochran:
I came to UGA as a transfer student, even though I was accepted as a freshman. I had applied to see if I could get in, but then decided I wanted to go to a smaller school. Once I decided to be an art major, however, I found that the smaller school couldn't provide everything I wanted. UGA was the place with the reputation and the resources.

I'm glad I came as a junior, because even then I was still somewhat overwhelmed by the size of the place. If I hadn't found my niche as an art student, I might not have been happy.

Support for black students at UGA was not in place at the time. The current Office of Minority Services and Programs, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, did not exist yet. Since I'd been active in black student organizations previously, it was disappointing to me not to find that at UGA.

Why did you want to come here as a faculty member?
Cochran:
I was in a tenure-track position elsewhere and happy where I was. But I was intrigued by what it might be like to be a faculty member at UGA. I knew there were only two other African-American faculty members in art—out of about 60 total—so I had some concerns. But I wanted to try it. I thought I would have more access to students serious about an art career, and I thought I might be able to make an impact.

What is it like to be an African-American faculty member at UGA in the '90s?
Cochran:
It can be very isolating. Fortunately for me, it's familiar territory and I enjoy living in Athens. I'm active in the Black Faculty and Staff Organization, and in other cross-campus and community groups. If I didn't have connections, I would not have stayed. I see a lot of stressed-out faculty here. We're asked to be 'ambassadors' on issues of race, to serve on the Black History Month committee and King Week committees, to mentor students and junior faculty, and to be active in the local community, too. It's a heavy load.

What can be done to improve this situation?
Cochran:
I don't think there's enough discussion about the climate for minorities at UGA. We need a consistent and dedicated look at the issue of equity—which is how I think this should be framed, rather than talking about diversity. I was born in 1962, the year after the University of Georgia was integrated, so it's only within my lifetime that minorities have had access to this institution.

What we need to be talking about is how the University of Georgia sees itself. What do we value? We don't get a chance to think about UGA identity—except on football Saturdays. There's more to it than saying we're all Bulldogs. The administration needs to be talking not just about recruiting minority students and faculty, but about ways of keeping us and valuing our talents and contributions.

"When I went to The Red and Black, I didn't realize I would be the first African-American editor-in-chief."

Mark Anthony Thomas
Junior, journalism

What is it like to be an African-American student at UGA in the 1990s?
Thomas:
Some students say they don't feel welcome, but I never had that feeling. If you come in motivated to handle any situation, you will be successful here. I took the initiative to get involved and make my presence known. First I attended the B.I.G. Event for incoming freshmen, then I joined The Red and Black staff and got involved in a fraternity. When I went to The Red and Black, I didn't realize that I would be the first African-American editor-in-chief.

Why did you choose to come to UGA?
Thomas:
It was close to home—I'm from Stone Mountain—and it was the academic fit I was looking for. I figured with 180 or so majors to choose from I wouldn't be stuck if I decided to change from one field to another, which is what happened. I started out in computer science and ended up in journalism.

Of course I knew I would be a minority—the issue was there—but I didn't worry that much about it. Some of the teachers in my high school encouraged me to come to UGA. That was a good thing, because my high school guidance counselor wasn't very encouraging and kept emphasizing how hard it was to get accepted.

What do you think about President Adams' decision to keep the race factor?
Thomas:
President Adams is a man of his word. Last year, as a sophomore, I was one of hundreds of students who took part in a rally on North Campus in support of diversity. President Adams greeted us and emphasized his support for a diverse campus—something he has stated from day one. He understands that the University is overwhelmingly white—with too few dots in between. It's still possible to look around classrooms and not see any minorities. And I'm not just talking about blacks, but Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans, too. We're barely represented at all and this factor helps encourage us to come here.

What do you say to people who argue that the use of the race factor gives minority students an unfair edge?
Thomas:
Why are people concerned about using race as a factor but not legacy status? With the University not desegregating until 1961, that puts minority students at a disadvantage because we're far less likely to have a parent who is an alum. In 1999, it's still important to keep race as a criteria and to do everything we can—both individually and as an institution—to recruit minority students of all races. One day we may not need a race factor, but right now we do.

Do current students have a role in helping recruit more minorities?
Thomas:
Right now I'm involved with a group of students who want to organize a recruitment effort. We hope to meet with admissions staff and other University administrators. We think it's very important to get a director of minority admissions hired. This is a crucial period and it will hurt us if we don't get that position filled.

UVA, the Chronicle reported, was "close to curtailing affirmative action," while President Michael F. Adams had announced the previous week that UGA would continue to apply a variety of factors, including race, in making admissions decisions for a portion of the freshman class to be admitted in 2000.

Speaking to members of the University Council, as well as students and others who packed the law school auditorium on Sept. 30, Adams said the legal outcome of standing by the University's admissions policy was unclear, "but we want to do the right thing." Most of the incoming class will be admitted solely on academic factors (high school GPA and SAT or ACT scores). But UGA will continue its policy of using several factors—including race—to evaluate those falling just below the cutoff for automatic admission, Adams said. The news was greeted with a standing ovation from the audience.

In Charlottesville, meanwhile, student groups staged a teach-in on UVA's central lawn to show their support for affirmative action, and the Faculty Senate unanimously agreed to issue a statement saying: "The consideration of race, as one of many factors for admission to the university, is both appropriate and justified."

UVA's board of visitors, reported as ready to abandon the race factor, voted instead to defend their current policy—in court, if necessary.

What the ultimate legal rulings on this complicated question will be remains unclear. As this issue of Georgia Magazine was going to press, Atlanta attorney Lee Parks, who has been in court for two years challenging UGA's use of the race factor—thus far, unsuccessfully—was continuing the legal battle.

On the national scene, a pair of lawsuits filed by white students who claimed they were denied admission to the University of Michigan and its prestigious law school because of their race was being termed "the Alamo of affirmative action." Defending Michigan's race-conscious admissions policies in a New York Times opinion piece was a noted alumnus —former President Gerald Ford. In Time, Michigan President Lee Bollinger was quoted as saying that racial diversity at a university is "as vital as teaching Shakespeare or mathematics."

Probably no single issue in higher education has received more attention in recent months. And the end of the debate is nowhere in sight, regardless of what court decisions are handed down. The questions raised are monumental ones as a new millennium dawns, and how they are resolved carries repercussions not only for the institutions involved, but for society as a whole.

The last Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in admissions was the 1978 Bakke case, which involved a white student who claimed he was wrongfully excluded from the medical school at the University of California-Davis to make room for minority applicants. The deciding opinion, written by Justice Lewis Powell, condemned the use of quotas but ruled that admissions officers could take race into account as one of several factors in evaluating candidates in order to work toward a diverse student body.

Adams defends UGA's use of multiple admissions factors as a typical procedure at many highly selective universities. Last year, more than 13,000 students applied for spots in UGA's freshman class of just over 4,000. While most admissions decisions were made solely on academic criteria, admissions staff and the faculty admissions committee considered additional factors before making final decisions for the last 10 percent of the class. For fall '99 freshmen, those factors included race and gender, whether they were Georgia residents, participated in extracurricular activities, worked during the summer or school year, had relatives who were alumni, or were the first generation in their family to attend college.

The factors used in admissions decisions are evaluated year to year, and for the class entering in 2000, the practice of giving a slight edge to male applicants, who make up less than half of the current student body, has been discontinued.

But race is a different matter, Adams told the University Council.

"Those who argue that the only fair method is a statistical ranking of applicants' academic records miss an important point," he said. "True fairness also includes a professional assessment of unique family situations, the schools the student has attended, the community he or she came from, and whether applicants had to overcome economic hardships to build a record of academic achievement. These things are not nearly so quantifiable as a GPA and an SAT score, yet they are important indicators of that applicant's chances for success."

Adams emphasized that no one factor can secure admission, but that the combination of factors used allows subjective assessment of students who bring additional qualities to the student body.

Adams advised the Council that he did not expect the admissions policy to meet with universal approval. "Everyone is expecting the state, the University System, and the University of Georgia to develop a solution that our peers in Texas, California, and Michigan also have been seeking but have not found as they traveled this same road," he said. "There is no panacea—no perfect solution. However, I believe this course of action to be a responsible one."

One new factor to be used in this year's process is a guarantee of admission to one valedictorian and one salutatorian from each Georgia high school fully accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The policy provides for geographic representation of the state.

Prior to announcing the admissions stance, Adams had lengthy discussions with senior administrators, faculty, and educational, political and alumni leaders. Afterwards, supporters and opponents weighed in via newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, talk-radio shows and private and public discussions on and off campus. Some chose to get in touch directly with the president. Of some 300 letters received by mid-October, the ratio was about 4-to-1 in favor of his decision.

On campus, many discussions moved beyond the immediate issue to a broader look at ways the university could improve on its record of recruitment and retention of minority students and also faculty. An Oct. 4 workshop brought some 150 deans, directors and department heads to the Georgia Center for Continuing Education for a three-hour session on the topic of building diversity. Provost Karen Holbrook challenged the group to be creative—and to realize that success in this area requires individual as well as institutional commitment.

Tactics discussed included offering summer programs or internships on campus targeted to selected high school students and reaching out to potential students through special recruitment initiatives. Admissions director Nancy McDuff and Graduate School Dean Gordhan Patel stressed the need to offer better financial packages to minority students, both because they often need more financial aid and because the competition, especially for high-achieving minority students, is intense.

"It's all about scholarships," said Patel. "We need scholarships at all levels."

UGA currently has no need-based scholarships, but offers a $1,000 merit scholarship—on top of the HOPE scholarship—to approximately five percent of each incoming freshman class.

Another campus discussion—this one in the College of Education—raised questions about what more the University could do to entice minority students who are admitted to choose UGA over other schools. Recognizing that top students are sought after by many institutions, participants argued the need for strong personal contacts with that group.

But even as fall applications began rolling in, the admissions office had a problem: as of mid-October, three positions were unfilled, including one vacated by a staff member with primary responsibility for minority recruitment efforts.

John Albright, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions, said the increased workload the office was experiencing made it critical to fill the positions. "But we'll take as long as we need to hire the right person," he said.

Meanwhile, some students and faculty were offering to get involved in recruitment efforts. But translating goodwill gestures into coordinated action remained to be worked out.

Regardless of tactics used, there seemed to be agreement—even, presumably, from those opposed to affirmative action—that a student body more representative of the state's demographics is a desirable goal for the University of Georgia. Many argue a moral obligation for the University to provide more access for the 32 percent of the 18- to 24-year-old population in Georgia that is African-American, particularly in view of the fact that UGA was not integrated until 1961, and then only after a protracted legal battle.

As recently as 1987, University System of Georgia institutions were under a federal court order to diversify their student bodies. While the legal climate since then has gotten decidedly chilly to affirmative action in both employment and education, many feel it's not yet time to abandon any method that offers opportunities to those long denied them.

"All of us have a responsibility to deal with the legacy of segregation as an issue in both academe and government," Adams said in his speech to University Council. "My commitment to providing opportunity to all is fundamental, and under my leadership the University of Georgia will remain committed to this basic right."


Sharron Hannon is director of the UGA News Service.

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