October 9, 2012

Maine colleges await Supreme Court's affirmative action ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case Wednesday, and it could prohibit any school from ever using race or ethnicity in admissions decisions.

By Susan McMillan smcmillan@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case Wednesday that could change Maine colleges' admissions decisions.

AP

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Fisher's suit is based on the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which applies to government entities like public universities. Private colleges and universities have an interest in the case via Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination by institutions receiving federal money, such as research grants or federally backed student aid.

If race-conscious admissions policies are determined to violate Title VI, enforcement would be up to the government.

"There's always a threat, but it's not much used," Zarr said. "I don't see an Obama administration taking away money from these Title VI institutions, but maybe a Romney administration might."

Affirming and inclusive

Bates, Bowdoin and Colby are significantly more diverse than other institutions in Maine, in part because they seek to serve a different population than, for example, the public universities and community colleges.

Some of the diversity gap between those schools and public ones is probably also because small colleges consider race in admissions.

Bowdoin College has 31 percent students of color this year, and last year Bates had 19 percent and Colby 16 percent.

Horn said that in addition to using race-conscious admissions, Bowdoin has recruited and enrolled more students from outside Maine and New England in the last dozen years to increase all types of diversity on campus, including racial and ethnic.

Bates' commitment to inclusiveness dates back to its founding by abolitionists, Lindkvist said, and affirmative action is still necessary because of continuing disparities in educational opportunity.

Lindkvist, a special assistant to the president on diversity issues and acting director of the Office of Equity and Diversity Resources, said she sees the educational benefits of campus diversity in her everyday experiences and in scientific studies.

"In order to have interactions on campus that mirror some of what happens outside, especially with increasing globalization and migration, you have to be attentive to creating a class that comes together with different perspectives," she said.

Race-neutral approaches

Not all of Maine's private institutions use affirmative action.

At the University of New England, admissions decisions are almost entirely dependent on academic factors, such as test scores and grades, said Stacy Gato, executive director of university admissions.

"We're looking for students that fit our profile as an institution because we want them to be successful," she said. "We view it as inclusive excellence."

Last year, 10 percent of UNE's students were minorities, making it slightly more diverse than public universities that also do not use affirmative action.

The University of Maine's undergraduate population is 8.6 percent students of color this year.

The university wouldn't make anyone available for a phone interview, but information available on its website shows that race and ethnicity are not considered in admissions. Also not considered are religious affiliation, being a first-generation college student or being related to a UM alumna or alumnus.

The most important factors are rigor of high school record, class rank, grade point average and standardized test scores.

Jamie Marcus, director of admissions for the University of Maine at Farmington, said his staff gives some consideration to factors such as extracurricular activities and on-campus interviews, but the high school transcript is most important. The school does not, however, look at SAT scores.

"We look holistically at a person," he said. "But the primary thing we're really looking at is: are they academically ready and will they be a good fit?"

Rachel Morales, interim director of admissions at the University of Southern Maine, said the school wants to cultivate diversity, but it does do not consider race in admissions.

As the Portland area has become more diverse, USM has reflected that change, Morales said. The undergraduate population was 9.2 percent students of color last year, up from 6.8 percent two years earlier.

Morales said USM staff are promoting the university at high schools and college fairs in parts of New England with higher minority populations.

"That's really more how we're approaching this, is in our recruitment strategies," she said.

Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be reached at 621-5645 or at:

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

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