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A proposed admissions policy change at Texas A&M University is rapidly devolving into a squabble over what constitutes racial preferences. Student leaders and anti-preference activists charge that the A&M regents' plan to admit the top 20 percent of high school seniors from some of Texas's poorly performing schools is both impractical and illegal.

On December 7, the A&M Board of Regents unanimously gave the nod for Texas A&M-College Station to pursue a new admissions policy, the gist of which would be automatic admission for the top 20 percent of graduating seniors from about 250 high schools classified by the state as "underperforming." These schools are minority-heavy.

Regent Wendy Gramm told the Houston Chronicle that the board seeks to ensure that "our flagship institutions are more representative of our population." But Jack Long, speaker of the student senate, believes the university is trying to skirt the state's affirmative action ban, and says the students he's spoken with disapprove of the measure.

"It's going to increase enrollment so much that it'll be impossible to get into A&M unless you're in the top 10 or 20 percent of your class," he said. "And the administration has been complaining that there aren't enough faculty to teach the students we already have."

The 1996 Hopwood decision made using affirmative action in college admissions illegal in Texas. Since then, university officials and lawmakers have scrambled to bolster minority enrollment, particularly at the University of Texas and A&M, the two state flagships. In 1997, the legislature passed a top 10 percent rule, which grants top graduates automatic admission to the state school of their choice. The idea was to increase socioeconomic diversity, and hence, racial diversity.

David Rushing, chairman of the A&M chapter of the Young Conservatives of Texas, said his group would be interested in legally contesting any policy switch. "We are already talking with national organizations who regularly lodge legal challenges against racial preferences," he said in a statement.

The organizations Rushing alludes to include those that have already demanded that A&M cease its admissions gerrymandering. A coalition of affirmative action opponents claimed in a December 18 letter to Texas attorney general John Cornyn--whom the regents have asked to review the measure's legality-- that the A&M policy change would violate Hopwood. The group, which includes Ward Connerly, Linda Chavez, and U.S. Commission on Civil Rights member Abigail Thernstrom, urged the attorney general to "deny the regents the ability to discriminate against individuals because of their race or ethnicity."

"It is our opinion that this is an effort to circumvent Hopwood v. Texas," the letter states. "That is, the high schools are being chosen because of their racial and ethnic make-up, in an effort to favor some groups and disfavor others."

The letter concluded by bluntly promising legal action were Cornyn to approve the policy. In another letter, this one from Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity and Edward Blum of Ward Connerly's American Civil Rights Institute to an official at the Education department's Office for Civil Rights, anti-preference advocates implored the government to investigate this "looming civil rights violation." The proposed policy would violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, wrote Clegg and Blum.

The action by Texas A&M reflects an increased desire for racial diversity at the rural Texas school, where minority figures seem woefully low when compared not only with the rest of the state, but even with the University of Texas. The A&M student body is over 80 percent white, while at UT, just 90 miles down the road, the student body is 63 percent white. In its Vision 2020 plan, the A&M plan for becoming a top 10 public school by 2020, increasing diversity is a stated goal: "Texas A&M University must reflect the demographic distribution of our state . . . and reduce to zero the number of students, faculty, or staff who leave because of a perception of a less-than-welcoming environment," the report reads.

Student senate speaker Long discredited the idea that A&M is unfriendly to minorities, pointing out that the military and agricultural roots of the school as well as its rural location have more of an impact on its demographic makeup. "We pride ourselves in our friendliness," he said. Some of Long's fellow senators are considering passing a resolution to condemn the proposed policy change.

A&M's move to increase racial diversity comes at a time when the old methods for doing so are increasingly suspect. States such as California and Florida have also abolished affirmative action in college admissions, and two cases out of the University of Michigan now before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals may force the Supreme Court to rethink its position on racial preferences altogether.

Where affirmative action is taboo, policies designed to achieve the same effect continue to pop up. Examples include the 10 percent rule in Texas, the top 20 and top 4 percent rules in Florida and California, respectively, and "focused" outreach efforts across the country. Last month, Lee Bockhorn ("Personal Achievement Scores: The New SAT")reported that the University of California system plans to start using "personal achievement scores" to evaluate freshman applicants in an attempt to beef up minority enrollment figures.

But targeting poorly performing schools for block admission? Even if the state's attorney general gives A&M the green light, favoring students from underperforming high schools seems like a poor way to make it to the top.

Read more at The Weekly Standard online.

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