UGA chief: high school standards key to needed diversity

The Supreme Court on Monday called for tougher scrutiny on colleges’ affirmative action policies, but did not eliminate their authority to consider an applicant’s race.

The University of Georgia is familiar with these legal issues. Its affirmative action admissions policy was ruled unconstitutional in 2001 by a federal appeals court.

President Michael Adams is stepping down Sunday, having served as president for 16 years. He discussed that 2001 decision and the issue of affirmative action during an interview June 11 with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Q: While UGA has become more diverse you have said UGA should look more like Georgia. How can that happen?

Adams: These are not simple answers. We are more diverse today. And the [admissions] standards have continued to go up. It is doable. It’s not doable easily.

I think we have to set very high bars for young people in K-12. I don’t think we yet talk enough about high school curriculum in this state. Four years of English; four years of math, foreign language, lab science, history. I think the general public is doing better in accepting those kinds of standards.

But the problem I see developing is we’re continuing to have a divide. About 40 percent of the schools in this state are very good and are producing young people we get to work with here, who can compete with kids from China, India, Germany, Brazil, you name it. In that upper 40 percent are more and more minorities who are doing the work, who are paying the price, who are basically getting themselves to an academic level where they can compete at a place like this.

We still have about 40 percent of the schools in this state that are not producing competitive young people. That is what worries me about the state for my grandchildren. We’ve got to figure out better ways to bring up the lower schools.

I have said and I believe we need a leadership class in this state that represents the ethnicities in this state. That’s to the state’s benefits. And I think we have an important role to play in that.

The first day I was here I stopped by the office and one of the two letters on the desk was from the federal government saying that we were out of compliance for the way we were doing admissions.

By the time the whole affirmative action issue made it to the courts, Gov. Barnes was governor and he deserves a lot of credit for hanging in there with us and letting us fight that lawsuit.

It was also a coming of age for a lot of people here. There was a huge outcry when I did away with legacies [after the decision].

We put in place a program in conjunction with the decision where if you are a high school valedictorian or salutatorian of any accredited high school in the state, public or private, we admit you. We sometimes have valedictorians in this state with 950 SATs and some of them have a hard time here.

We’ve made a lot of reasonable accommodations.

I’ve supported affirmative action and I’ve been asked how long it needs to go on. When I first got here I said for at least another generation. Most people define a generation as 28 years and we’ve used 16 of them.

I don’t think affirmative action as we’ve known it will last or should last. But we can argue about when is an appropriate time.

I grew up in Jim Crow. I remember separate bathrooms and water fountains. My late father was well ahead of his time. He came at it from a very committed religious perspective about how a lot of people weren’t treated properly. He didn’t get much more philosophical about it than that.

But that stuck with me from a pretty young age. I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but it’s one of the things that people who know me know has driven me.

I think if we challenge minorities properly they can and will and have risen to the bar. We now have African-American deans, vice presidents, professors and department chairs at every level of this university.

I take some real pleasure in that. The last two provosts, not that the others weren’t, but both Arnett Mace and Jere Morehead have done a lot of heavy lifting in that regard. [Morehead will be UGA’s next president.] This certainly hasn’t been all me. They deserve a lot of credit for keeping the pressure on in recruiting and counseling and all the things that go into increasing that population.

Are we in the state yet where we need to be? You can argue pro or con, but we’re probably not.

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