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Making kids of college alumni earn their place

Proposed Texas bill would outlaw public universities fromadmitting students just because they are 'legacies.'

In a state where every other car windshield is plastered with stickers that read "Aggie Mom" and "My daughter and my money go to UT," picking a fight with alumni might seem like a foolish idea. But one Texas lawmaker is intending to do just that. Rep. Lon Burnam wants the state's public colleges to stop the entrenched practice of giving special admissions consideration to children of alumni. Texas would become the first state to take aim at this totem of American higher education, but to the Fort Worth Democrat, it's a matter of fairness. Now that the courts prohibit Texas public colleges from considering race in admitting students, Representative Burnam sees a need to level the playing field a bit more. "Texas is notoriously guilty of wasting the minds of minority young people," says Burnam, who represents a mainly minority district. "We all know the system is not fair. I'm going after a piece of it." The bill forbidding so-called "legacy admissions" is just one method of helping minority students in a post-affirmative action society. And while most states don't yet have to deal with a ban on race-based admissions policies, Texas' bill will be closely watched if it makes it to the House floor. Indeed, if the Lone Star State finds novel ways of promoting diversity, other states are likely to emulate them. After affirmative action Admitting students solely on performance, paying no attention to race, is a controversial notion in the ivory towers of America. And here, where black and Hispanic students were excluded from public colleges as recently as the 1950s, many lawmakers say that something needs to be done to make sure colleges don't return to the Jim Crow era ended in part by affirmative action. "You can't take away what many people consider to be the best way of ending historic discrimination and lack of access for racial minorities, and then turn around and let people in for reasons that have nothing to do with academic achievement," says state Rep. Glen Maxey, a Democrat from Austin and a Burnam supporter. "I think this is just the beginning. We're going to be looking at all kinds of admissions policies and preferences." While university administrators here take no position on the legislation, some officials, including University of Texas president Larry Faulkner, say they are open to any change that could make the admissions process fairer. "Americans have a strong sense of egalitarianism," says Mike Sharlot, dean of the UT Law School. In theory, Americans accept that private colleges can give special preference to whomever they want, he says. "But in the competition for public resources, we should all have an equal place at the starting line." Like many college administrators, Dr. Sharlot is proud of UT's past efforts to admit greater numbers of black and Hispanic students, particularly given the school's long history of excluding minorities. Even so, while he regards Burnam's bill as "an admirable principle," he doubts it will pass. "Much will depend on what the list of prohibitions will include," he says. "Will it include that individual who is recommended by a member of the Legislature? It's hard to believe the Legislature will pass a bill that will say ... that no consideration will be given to the fact that an applicant's family have been large donors." But not all academic officials embrace Burnam's proposed legislation. In fact, recent statistics from Texas A&M University in College Station show that removing legacy admissions may, in fact, hurt minority students. Of the 200 freshman applicants where legacy was the crucial factor in granting admission, most were minority students. "If you look at our applications, African- American and Hispanic students are the same as everyone, except for SAT scores," says Ron Douglas, provost at Texas A&M. In this environment, legacy plays a disproportionate role in boosting minority students whose relatives attended or worked at the college. "When you look at who would not be let in without legacy as a factor, it's a minuscule number, but they are heavily minority," he says. Bill's chances In the end, some political insiders say the survival of this bill depends largely on Burnam's political abilities to force it onto the House floor for a vote. If the state's powerful alumni lobbying groups feel threatened, they are more likely to make their voices heard - in private meetings, not in massive advertising campaigns. But bill supporters say that sending a strong message demanding fairness in admissions would be worth the effort. "I don't think a lot of members are going to get up on the floor of the house and say, 'I think people ought to be able to buy their way into a school for their dumb-jock kid,' " chuckles Representative Maxey. When bills die, he says, they die quietly, in committee. "These issues don't die in public debate," he says. "They get loved to death."

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