- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

From combined dispatches

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner yesterday criticized Virginia Tech's governing board for eliminating admissions, hiring and financial aid preferences based on race, sex and other characteristics.

In a statement, the governor also urged other college boards not to consider similar changes until after the U.S. Supreme Court rules in a case involving the University of Michigan's admissions policy.

Mr. Warner said the board should reconsider the decision after the Supreme Court ruling and should seek public comment.

Meanwhile, students, faculty members and administrators are raising questions about Tech's surprise decision.

And some other state-supported colleges and universities in Virginia said they either have quietly modified their policies in recent years or are awaiting advice from the attorney general on whether they should.

Virginia Tech's Board of Visitors adopted unanimously on Monday a resolution that bars the school from considering "an applicant's disability, age, veteran status, political affiliation, race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religious belief or gender" in admissions, hiring or financial-aid decisions.

The board also deleted all references to sexual orientation from the university's nondiscrimination clause. The university's Student Government Association has consulted a lawyer about forcing the board to reinsert the language.

"The role of the SGA is to represent and protect all students, and we plan to do so," said Sterling Daniel, SGA president. Some school officials said the changes could have a chilling effect on the university's diversity efforts by sending the wrong message to minorities.

Barry Simmons, director of scholarships and financial aid at Virginia Tech, said he does not expect the new policy to affect his office a lot, but added that it could harm the school's image.

"It sends a very mixed message," he said.

Similarly, the director of Virginia Tech's Office of Equal Opportunity, Mel Gillespie, said the resolution probably would not affect the office because it operates under federal guidelines and does not give preference to any group. But, he said, the resolution could impede recruiting.

"It's the image," Mr. Gillespie said. "What's going to attract qualified minorities and women to apply to Virginia Tech and come to work here?"

Susan Gooden, an associate professor and president of the Black Caucus of Virginia Tech, said she was "extremely disappointed" that the board did not wait for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of considering race in college-admissions decisions.

"The resolution puts the equivalent of an 'unwelcome' sign onto the front entrance of Virginia Tech," Miss Gooden said.

Board members said the resolution was a response to advice from Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore on whether universities or their board members might be held liable for race-conscious policies.

An April 2002 memorandum from state Solicitor William H. Hurd to Virginia college officials warned that some types of affirmative-action programs had been ruled illegal by federal courts and that others could still be subject to costly legal challenges.

Even before that memo was issued, however, at least two Virginia schools had dropped rating systems that appeared to give minority students an edge in admissions.

In 1999, the University of Virginia dropped a numerical sorting system that granted applicants an extra point if they were nonwhite, foreign citizens or the first in their family to attend college. The system was not used to make final decisions, said Admissions Dean John A. Blackburn.

Although the percentage of black students at UVa. has slipped slightly in the past decade, Mr. Blackburn said the cause seems to be the increasing level of competition for getting into the school rather than any modification in the admissions system.

The College of William & Mary also used a numerical rating system to evaluate applicants, although officials said a student's race or ethnicity was never used to calculate a score. However, the school dropped the system out of concerns that it might be misinterpreted.

"It wasn't a matter of worrying we were doing something wrong," said Karen Cottrell, William & Mary's associate provost for enrollment, noting that the school still considers ethnicity in a larger "holistic evaluation" of an applicant. "We didn't want to create an impression we knew wasn't true."

A challenge to a rating system used by the University of Michigan will be heard before the U.S. Supreme Court on April 1 in a case that could determine the future of affirmative action in college admissions.

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said that while his school has considered race a factor in evaluating applicants, "it is not a criteria that grants you points."

"It has been a factor. We will have to take a look at the [new] board policy to see if it can still be a factor," he said.

At least two other Virginia institutions are waiting for more advice from Mr. Kilgore before making any changes.

Mary Washington College's Board of Visitors sought Mr. Kilgore's opinion in December on the school's admissions procedures and is awaiting a response, said Martin A. Wilder Jr., vice president for enrollment.

In January, James Madison University's board directed the school's administration to give Mr. Kilgore information on all race-conscious programs there. After consultation with the Attorney General's Office, administrators will report Mr. Kilgore's recommendations to the university's Board of Visitors in April.

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