End of affirmative action upsets a Texas campus College Life: Rallies and protests have rocked the usually placid main campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

September 19, 1997|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

AUSTIN, Texas -- Heeding the decision of a federal court, Texas has ended affirmative action in college admissions. But on the sprawling University of Texas campus, a place roused more often by football than by politics, the end has not come quietly.

Minority enrollment in professional schools has fallen. A law professor outraged the campus with his observation that minority students "are not academically competitive." A thousand noisy protesters occupied the law school.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson on Tuesday drew an overwhelmingly white throng of 5,000 repeating his chant, "I am somebody."

Students at a school generally described as apathetic found themselves swept into a debate on the importance of diversity in the classroom, on fairness in college admissions and on freedom of speech, particularly when the speech is unpopular.

It's all added up to disrupted classes and unwelcome national publicity, many students and faculty say. They fear the country now has the impression that minorities are not welcome here.

"It casts a bad light," said Edward Garrison, a law student who is the son of an Anglo father and Hispanic mother. "It makes people think there's racial hostility at the school, and I don't think there is."

"Try to hold classes in the midst of this," said Jennifer Mathis, a third-year law student, as hundreds of protesters shouted "We won't go back" from the law school lobby.

But some on campus believe the chanting and protesting helps by focusing attention on a tough problem: How to attract more African-American and Mexican-American students to UT, which its dean says has graduated more African-American and Mexican-American lawyers combined than any other law school in the country.

A federal appeals court ruled last year that ethnicity cannot be considered when offering admissions and financial aid.

"It's been great," student body President Marlen Whitley, who is black, said of the turmoil. "What we've got now is momentum for a lot of thinking, a lot of talking."

First, however, came a lot of anger.

Last week, law Professor Lino Graglia told reporters -- in 'N language bereft of soothing nuance -- that "blacks and Mexican Americans are not academically competitive with whites in selective institutions. They have a culture that seems not to encourage achievement."

Long an opponent of racial preferences, Graglia had voiced the same beliefs many times before. But on a campus now sensitive to racial issues, the comments caused an uproar.

Though most of his fellow law professors disagreed with Graglia's statements, they defended his right to make them. "He glories in overstatement," said law Professor Sanford Levinson.

Students and lawmakers demanded Graglia's ouster -- unlikely, as the professor is tenured. Jackson, fresh from leading a protest against the end of affirmative action in California, came to UT to urge students to boycott Graglia's classes.

"The school should be ashamed," Jackson said to the largest political gathering on campus in years. "He represents a national disgrace."

After standing firm for a week, Graglia released a statement saying his comment was "carelessly put, and I regret it." Law school Dean M. Michael Sharlot said he'd found no evidence that Graglia has discriminated against students and said he would not take any disciplinary action.

"I certainly could have expressed them more discreetly," Graglia said of his comments. But he allowed that he was not disturbed by a drop in law school minority enrollment attributed to the end of racial preferences.

"Isn't it an enormous advantage if those people [minority students who were admitted without affirmative action] can say they got in the same as everybody else?" Graglia asked. "That's a remarkable gain."

Why is diversity in a university classroom important?

"You will not be entering a work force that is all white or all male," said Whitley, the student body president, who hopes to attend the UT law school next year. "Any student that enters an institution of higher education interacts with people of different backgrounds and different ethnicities, and that's part of your education."

"Particularly in the law school," Sharlot said, "where students play a large part in educating each other, it's important for students to hear from different people who have experienced the law in very different ways."

RTC But with the court ruling in place, how can UT continue to draw enough minority students to make a difference in a student body of 48,800?

"I don't know of anybody who has a good answer on how one can have a racially and ethnically diverse student body without preferences," said Levinson, who teaches constitutional law.

Universities in other states, where race can still be considered for admissions and scholarships, may siphon off more and more minority students who might have considered UT, Levinson said. "We're playing by a different set of rules from our competitors. So we get killed."

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