UW Today

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January 19, 2000

University of Washington president outlines strategies for coping with loss of affirmative action

News and Information

Recent history in the state of Washington may be a helpful guide to what will happen in the rest of the country regarding affirmative action and higher education, according to the president of the University of Washington.

Richard L. McCormick, in a speech to be delivered Jan. 20 to the Association of American Colleges and Universities at its annual meeting at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., outlines the steps that the university is taking to cope with the passage in November 1998 of Initiative 200, which prohibited the use of race or ethnicity as factors in college admissions.

“Washington is by tradition a progressive state,” McCormick says. “And yet our voters have had enough of affirmative action. I think that’s the direction of the national consensus. We may be pained at the loss of a tool that has accomplished so much, but we should not be astonished.”

In the short term, the university has tried to rethink the “personal factors” that are taken into consideration for admission of about one-third of freshmen. The new criteria that the university employed included factors such as economic and educational disadvantage, cultural awareness, overcoming personal adversity, school adversity, and leadership. Despite the use of these criteria, enrollment of underrepresented minority freshmen dropped by 32 percent in 1999.

The university’s other short term efforts have focused on recruiting. They include sending 43,000 letters to qualified students in the West, of whom 13,000 are minorities; hiring counselors to represent the university at high schools in Seattle and Tacoma; increasing the presence of UW minority students in area high schools; adding a staff position in student outreach and community relations, increasing the university’s access to and interaction with minority organizations; and establishing a UW center on the campus of Heritage college in eastern Washington, which serves primarily Indian and Hispanic students.

While the short-term strategies are necessary, McCormick says he expects the greatest impact from efforts to work in and with schools to identify talented minority youngsters and encouraging them to pursue a college-preparatory track. For the most part, these efforts are an expansion of programs already in existence. These include a program in middle schools that intends to maximize the number of minority students who enroll in a college-preparatory curriculum in ninth grade; a statewide program in mathematics, science and engineering for underrepresented students in grades six through twelve; intensive four-week summer sessions in biology for minority and disadvantaged high school students; and a new program in which the UW is working with a tribe and a school district to develop a science curriculum that is more experiential and more attuned to cultural contexts.

Long-term, the solution to low minority enrollment in higher education lies in addressing the two major issues of school reform and the problem “of minority cultures that chronically underachieve in the academic sphere,” McCormick says.

“If we can take any solace from the loss of affirmative action, it is that all of us may now finally have to face up to these two intractable problems. Along with the rest of American society, universities are up against issues from which they were largely insulated by affirmative action.”