Colleges watching Texas vs. Hopwood High court has chance to further define limits on affirmative action

June 23, 1996|By Lyle Denniston and David Folkenflik | Lyle Denniston and David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Steven Smith, a Texas attorney, had a theory. Cheryl Hopwood, a Maryland accountant who wants to be a lawyer, had grievance. That brought them together in a legal challenge that threatens to dismantle affirmative action programs and transform campuses across the country.

Hopwood, who is white, believes that the University of Texas Law School rejected her four years ago because its admissions policy unfairly favored minorities. She signed on to what has become a major constitutional cause: a lawsuit that could block the use of race in selecting students at colleges and universities.

This week, the Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to take on that volatile issue. For a court that is increasingly wary about race preferences in drawing voting districts, offering scholarships or awarding contracts, Texas vs. Hopwood may provide another opportunity to further define the limits.

"We're all watching Hopwood," said Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland System. "If the decision in the Hopwood case is, in the end, upheld as national law, very large changes in affirmative action programs will be required."

In March, a federal appeals court shocked the academic world by ruling in the case that achieving diversity in a college's student body cannot justify using race as a factor in admissions decisions. If the Supreme Court justices agree to review that decision, a final ruling would be a year away.

Higher education officials say that if race weren't considered, significant numbers of minority students would be turned down. At the University of Texas, for example, Provost Mark Yudof predicts the school could not admit one-half to two-thirds of its black and Hispanic students.

While affirmative action programs are under increasing attack from conservatives -- regents of the University of California System killed such programs last year -- they are in place on most major campuses, often due to government prodding. Many private universities have such programs, too, and also would be affected if the highest court upheld the Hopwood ruling because those institutions receive federal funds.

At the University of Texas and other schools, minority students have reacted by protesting in support of affirmative action. In some states, public officials hostile to racial preferences have seized on the ruling. Citing the case, Georgia's attorney general said he would not defend his state's universities against any reverse discrimination lawsuits. "Our law school is terrified," says Donald Eastman, a vice president at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Elsewhere, administrators are looking for new ways to enroll minority students. At Rice University in Houston, for example, officials may boost the prospects of students who reflect "the culture of the inner city," says Kathryn R. Costello, a vice president.

The Bakke decision

The Hopwood case could seriously threaten -- if not actually overturn -- part of the court's landmark decision in the reverse discrimination case brought by Allan Bakke, a white Californian who had been rejected by a state medical school. Arguing that the school unconstitutionally set aside seats for blacks, Bakke won a 5-4 victory in the Supreme Court nearly two decades ago.

But that decision -- a compromise that splintered the court more than usual -- still permitted some consideration of race in admissions, as a way to achieve "diversity" among students. It gave rise to affirmative action programs at schools across the country, including the University of Texas Law School.

Almost submerged in the dispute is Hopwood, 33, who now lives in Columbia and works part time at an accounting firm in Laurel. She joined the suit because of what she viewed as inequitable treatment. She has said that she supports affirmative action but only at the undergraduate level.

"Minorities do need some help," she told the National Law Journal in 1994, "but no one helped me. It should even the playing field by the time you get beyond the bachelor's level. When does the catch-up stop?"

Hopwood has withdrawn from the public stage, just as controversy over the case deepens. Her lawyers say she has grown wary of becoming a symbol of conflict between the races. She did not respond to requests to be interviewed by The Sun.

Hopwood graduated from California State University at Sacramento in 1988. She worked her way through by spending 20 to 30 hours a week at an accounting job.

In 1991, she and her husband moved to San Antonio, where he was sent by the Air Force. Their daughter, Tara, was born that summer with cerebral palsy and a rare muscle disease. The following January, Hopwood applied to the Austin law school. She had good grades -- a 3.8 average -- and law board scores, but was offered only a place on the waiting list.

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