- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech has begun changing or removing academic programs for minorities in advance of a Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action that may come as soon as today.

University administrators have amended 16 race-conscious programs, mostly in the past few months. They are also discontinuing a privately funded program that allows black students to study abroad and are forcing open a spot in the veterinary college previously reserved for blacks.

The decision to reassess affirmative action was made on the advice of the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, which warned the university’s Board of Visitors last year that it could be liable if the school’s policies were challenged in court.

“That raised the anxiety level about these issues quite a bit,” said Mark McNamee, a Virginia Tech provost who has been supervising the policy changes since April. “We’re not going to consciously do anything that is not within existing law.”

In addition to the program changes, Virginia Tech may make its admissions process colorblind by separating race information from student applications, Mr. McNamee said. The university may also ask private donors who fund minority scholarships to offer them to all races.

College of William & Mary law Professor Michael J. Gerhardt, who disagrees with Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore’s interpretation of federal law, said it doesn’t make sense to change everything with the high court’s ruling so near.

“Why go through the work of changing policies now when you might have to change them again tomorrow?”

The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its opinion today on two cases in which three white applicants are challenging admissions policies at the University of Michigan. The students, who were rejected from the school, say black, Latino and American Indian candidates with the same qualifications were given preferential treatment.

If the ruling does not come today — the last scheduled day of the court’s session — another day may be added, a Supreme Court spokeswoman said.

Virginia Tech, the commonwealth’s largest university, with 26,000 students, removed a ban on preferences for minorities in April under intense pressure by alumni groups and Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat.

At that time, board members said they would wait for the Supreme Court to help them devise affirmative action policies.

But Tech continues to consult with the Attorney General’s Office, which has been investigating affirmative action policies at all state colleges and universities.

Schools such as the University of Virginia and William & Mary have been consulting with the attorney general for several years, modifying programs if needed.

“We made some minor changes four or five years ago,” said Bill Walker, spokesman for William & Mary. “We feel like we’re in good shape now.”

At least 10 other schools around the country — including Princeton University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Iowa State University — have in the past six months dropped programs that were available only to minority students, according to the Center for Equal Opportunity.

The Sterling, Va.-based center, which opposes affirmative action, sent letters to 30 schools earlier this year saying their race-specific programs violate federal law.

“Very few of those schools questioned the legality of race-exclusive programs,” the center’s Edward Blum said.

Mr. Blum also said the center plans to pursue 50 to 60 more schools after the Supreme Court hands down its opinion.

Mr. McNamee said he could not name every affected program at Virginia Tech because they were chosen during private consultation with Mr. Kilgore’s office. But he said most were modified rather than dropped.

Other programs, including the university’s Minority Academic Opportunities Program, could be changed.

The program, a support network founded in 1992 for minorities, women and students from low-income families, was one of several targeted by Mr. Kilgore’s office as “constitutionally problematic” for being race exclusive.

The program’s founder, Randolph Grayson, fears that changing the program to allow everyone would muddle its original purpose and make it obsolete.

“We serve people who are underrepresented in the workplace — for whatever reason,” he said. “If this is going to become a program for the ‘haves’ as well as the ‘have-nots,’ then there won’t be a need for it.”

In anticipation of the ruling, Mr. McNamee said Virginia Tech is preparing two sets of policy changes for admissions and academic programs: one that does not take race into account and another that allows school officials to consider race among a number of other factors.

“We feel really good about our review,” he said. “If the Supreme Court should say, ‘only race-neutral programs [are acceptable],’ we’d have an alternative in place.”

Even if schools are allowed race-conscious programs, “we may choose to go race neutral because it’s more fair or better or simpler,” Mr. McNamee said.

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