Finding the balance between diversity and fairness

In the global marketplace, the economic success of a diverse nation like ours depends on diverse workplaces, professions and occupations. These, in turn, depend upon colleges and universities to serve them — and society — by producing leaders and workers well-prepared to compete in the diverse world that awaits them.

Nowhere is this more important than in Washington, the most trade-dependent state in the nation. But the efforts of our public colleges and universities to nurture the diversity so critical to our workforce have been hampered by a well-intentioned initiative approved by the voters in 1998.

Washington citizens value diversity. They value fairness, too. With the approval of Initiative 200, 58 percent of voters determined that they did not want our public colleges and universities to base admissions decisions on quotas, preferential treatment, predetermined points or numeric set-asides based on race, national origin, color or ethnicity.

In the time since a majority of voters voiced their preference for a colorblind admissions process, two important events have occurred.

First, our state's public colleges and universities experienced an immediate overall decline in minority applications, admissions and enrollments as a result of the 1998 law. Six years later, enrollment numbers have yet to recover fully — with some variation based on institutions and minority status.

At a time when the number of minority citizens is projected to rise dramatically in our state over the coming years, we can't afford to leave our minority students behind. Furthermore, top minority applicants and faculty are being lured away by other institutions outside the state because of a perception that Washington doesn't welcome diversity.

Second, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in 2003 on the constitutionality of using race as one factor among many in university admissions decisions.

Numerous Fortune 500 companies, as well as members of the military, submitted legal briefs in support of the University of Michigan Law School's diversity-in-admissions policy.

In the end, the court upheld its constitutionality. The court went even further, and found a compelling state interest in a "narrowly tailored" use of affirmative action, when race is a factor but not the only factor in public colleges' and universities' admissions policies.

And late last year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals followed suit and upheld the University of Washington School of Law's efforts to ensure educational diversity.

We believe these two occurrences — the minority enrollment decline in our state's public universities and the Supreme Court's University of Michigan admissions ruling — give cause to re-evaluate our I-200 statute.

Fortunately, I-200 can be refined to correct its unintended effects and to reflect the Supreme Court's opinion, while still respecting the will of the people who supported it.

Currently, our public colleges and universities can evaluate candidates based on piecemeal traits, such as reasoning ability, age, writing style, grade-point average, athletic ability, musical talent and veteran status.

We believe many supporters of I-200 objected to the use of race, national origin, color or ethnicity as the primary characteristic in admissions. But as a result of the law, public colleges and universities are prevented from including race at all as a consideration in order to achieve diversity.

The Supreme Court's opinion, however, provides us with a roadmap to strike the perfect balance between diversity and fairness.

Amending current state law along the lines of the court's decision would set aside no admission slots for members of any racial groups, would give no racial group separate consideration based solely on its status as a racial group, and would not use predetermined, numerical values for diversity factors.

Instead, public colleges and universities would simply be allowed the flexibility to include race as one of many characteristics considered during the admissions process. This flexibility would be subject to periodic review in order to determine whether it is still needed to achieve diversity, and subject to termination once it no longer was.

Every one of our state's public colleges and universities has indicated its desire to consider an applicant's background in its entirety and include race as one consideration among many in the admissions process.

They each believe that their core educational mission — to create a quality educational environment that produces good, effective, well-trained future leaders and workers — is immeasurably improved where a diverse student body is present.

House Bill 1586 and Senate Bill 5575 have been introduced in the Legislature to help achieve just that. The Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is leading community efforts and working with business and labor groups in advancing the legislation. The Higher Education Coordinating Board, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and Gov. Christine Gregoire have lent their support as well.

We know that Washington citizens value both diversity and fairness. And we know that they'd prefer not to pick one at the expense of the other. Fortunately, we can achieve both.

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce, Research and Development Committee. Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez-Kenney, D-Seattle, chairs the House Higher Education Committee. Phyllis R. Beaumonte and Moni T. Law chair the Education Committee and Legal Redress Committee of the Washington state chapter of the NAACP.