The University of Virginia Reevaluates Its Use of Race in Admissions

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors recently adopted unanimously a resolution supporting the changes in the university admissions policy by President John T. Casteen III. Casteen this month acknowledged that in June he had ended the university’s use of a scoring system in admissions that awarded extra points to black applicants.
Casteen said in an open letter to the university community that his decision was necessary owing to a “scandalous lack of clarity in the law” governing admissions processes.

“So far as I can tell, the courts have abandoned the Adams requirement for remedies (of past discrimination in public higher education) and have left universities with no guidance on what they ought to do, must do, or can do,” Casteen wrote. “Bakke (the 1978 Supreme Court decision on considering race in admissions) remains in place as a national rule, but the Hopwood decision (eliminating race-preferential admissions at the University of Texas Law School) sets it aside as precedent in the Fifth Circuit and leaves our lawyers and Board with no clear rule of law for our own Fourth Circuit. Current litigation in California and Michigan may eventually generate clear rules, but we do not have those rules now.”

A panel set up by Board of Visitors Chairman John P. Ackerly III had already determined that the racial scoring system used by the university was open to court challenge. The board first became concerned about the system’s vulnerability after the appearance in the student newspaper The Cavalier Daily of an advertisement suggesting the university’s admissions process used illegal racial preferences. The Center for Individual Rights (CIR), a non-profit legal organization, had placed the advertisement.

CIR published a handbook last year tailored to university trustees on the issue of racial preferences. “Many colleges and universities are reevaluating their admissions policies in the wake of recent judicial rulings,” the handbook states. “That’s because the continued use of racial preferences poses considerable legal risk to the institutions and to individual officials. Moreover, members of the public and alumni increasingly are opposed to racial preferences, making it all the more difficult to defend their continued use.”

Roger B. Clegg, general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO), said that although Virginia had gotten rid of the formal practice of giving pluses to African-American students in the admissions process, he thought it was “likely that they are going to continue to give informal, subjective pluses to African-American students.” CEO has published studies on the use of racial preferences by public universities in both Virginia and North Carolina.

North Carolina, like Virginia, needs to pay attention to the courts, Clegg said. “Over the last few weeks, Virginia has certainly taken to heart the legal problems that using preferences creates,” he said. “The use of preferences makes a university legally vulnerable, particularly in light of two Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which governs North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland) decisions in the last few weeks.” Those decisions struck down the use of race-based admissions in public schools in Arlington County, Va., and Montgomery County, Maryland.