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ISSUE 116 VOL 14 PUBLISHED 3/14/2003

Admission policies spawn controversy: Affirmative action, legacy admittance become national focus

By Annie Rzepecki
Contributing Writer

Friday, March 14, 2003

On April 1, the Supreme Court will hear one of the most controversial affirmative action cases in the nation’s history.

At issue is the constitutionality of the University of Michigan’s policy of giving black and Hispanic students a slight advantage in the admission process for admittance into the university and its law school.

On a scale of 150 points, students classified as members of an "underrepresented racial-ethnic minority" can receive up to 20 points; grade point average, SAT scores, and scholarship athletics can be worth up to 80, 12 and 20 points, respectively.

Director of Admissions Jeff McLaughlin does not see affirmative action as a "cut and dry issue." He says that three main things come into play in the admittance of minority students at St. Olaf.

"First, we have a stated policy that diversity is important, McLaughlin said." He added that every difference that students have, including race, brings something valuable to the college.

Secondly, McLaughlin stated that St. Olaf was founded in order to educate first generation college students.

At the time, such students were Norwegian immigrants, but today, minority students comprise a significant percentage of first generation college students.

McLaughlin’s third point was one having to do with socioeconomic status. "[Many] students of color live in places where education is not as good as in the suburbs, therefore there is less opportunity to succeed."

Dean of Community Life and Diversity Eida Berrio believes that socio-economic status is a direct derivative of race. "We can’t overlook the important role that race plays in our nation. A disproportionate number of people of color are in poverty, prison, and are victims of the death penalty. People of color are at a disadvantage…Race affects things too much - much more than it should," she said.

McLaughlin stressed that St. Olaf looks for students who will not just make it through graduation, but who will thrive and contribute to the St. Olaf community.

He also reiterated St. Olaf’s global perspective and its efforts to avoid a homogenous student body.

When asked if it came down to the two proverbial students who had equal credentials, but were of different races, McLaughlin said that race would definitely come into play.

If the minority student had to overcome more adversity to succeed in high school and life in general, then St. Olaf would probably take that student over the one who was from a wealthy suburb with few obstacles to deal with.

"We reach for those students," McLaughlin said.

In addition to student admissions, Berrio spoke about St. Olaf’s hiring policies. When looking for a staff member, "we make sure we are energetic in our outreach efforts [to historically underrepresented cultures]," she said. She added that the interviews are not biased, and they contain no built-in procedures for discrimination.

Both Berrio and McLaughlin doubt that the Supreme Court’s ruling on the University of Michigan’s case (expected to come out in July) will affect St. Olaf’s admissions or hiring policies.

"Legally, we are not engaging in any practices in hiring that could be subject to litigation. We are inclusive of all applicants," Berrio said.

For instance, TRIO is a program at St. Olaf that helps first generation college students of all racial backgrounds, as well as students with physical challenges, language deficiencies, and limited income.

McLaughlin believes that the hype over the case gives St. Olaf the opportunity to articulate its own policies.

Berrio agrees that it is important "to make sure that people have an accurate perception of the institution we are. We are an institution respective of diversity," she said.

Berrio emphasized that although affirmative action is almost always associated with race, it also encompasses age, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

"It is important for the community and students to be informed of the misconceptions about affirmative action," she said.

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