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USM to continue race-conscious policies despite Trump administration move

12-19-14 BALTIMORE, MD- Photos from the press conference introducing Dr. Robert L. Caret as the Chancellor- Designate for the University System of Maryland. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Caret (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Maryland’s public universities should continue to be able to use existing race-conscious factors in their admissions process despite the Trump administration’s announcement it was rescinding previous guidance designed to encourage schools to consider race in admissions decisions.

The administration’s actions could disincentivize universities from considering race in admissions, but University System of Maryland Chancellor Robert Caret said the system’s commitment to a diverse student body would continue.

“The University System of Maryland is committed to recruiting, welcoming and educating talented students from all backgrounds, including all races and ethnicities,” he said in a statement. “As I have said before, fostering diversity and inclusion in our classrooms and laboratories is a critical part of our efforts to prepare Maryland’s and the nation’s future leaders. In achieving this goal, USM institutions will continue to abide by long-established federal law and precedent.”

The federal decision comes after a study from the Hechinger Report early this year brought the university’s flagship College Park campus under criticism for the racial makeup of its student body.

That report found that the university had one of the highest gaps between the racial makeup of a state and its flagship university.

More than 35 percent of the state’s high school graduates in 2015 were black while less than 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at College Park that fall were black, the report found. The gap between the two numbers was the seventh-highest in the nation.

Leaders at the system and university level, including Caret and University of Maryland, College Park President Wallace Loh, have spoken at numerous events over the past year about the need to foster racial diversity, especially in light of several racist and racially tinged incidents on campus.

“The undergraduate student population of USM institutions should draw from all areas of the state and reflect the diversity of the state’s population,” the USM policy says. “Consistent with their individual missions, institutions will seek to enroll the students having greatest potential to benefit from their programs. Each institution shall take appropriate actions in its admissions procedures to achieve these goals, consistent with State and federal laws.”

The Trump administration’s decision should not prohibit the system’s universities from using the race-conscious factors in its admissions process that they already have in place.

The University of Maryland, College Park, does not anticipate the policy change will have any effect on existing practices at the school.

“We are proud to be among the most diverse public flagship institutions in the country and we remain committed to our mission as a diverse institution,” the university said in a statement. “We are confident our admissions policies are consistent with the rulings by the Supreme Court and will review any new policy guidelines when issued by the administration.”

But the move could make it harder for schools to pursue race-conscious policies, especially making it difficult for schools to defend themselves from discrimination lawsuits.

The action comes amid a high-profile court fight over Harvard University admissions that has attracted the government’s attention, as well as Supreme Court turnover expected to produce a more critical eye toward schools’ race-conscious admissions policies.

The court’s most recent significant ruling on the subject bolstered colleges’ use of race among many factors in the admission process. But the opinion’s author, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, announced his retirement last week, giving President Donald Trump a chance to replace him with a justice who may be more reliably skeptical of admissions programs that take race and ethnicity into account.

The new policy dramatically departs from the stance of the Obama administration, which said schools could consider race in admissions decisions. In one 2011 policy document, the administration said courts had recognized schools’ “compelling interest” in ensuring racially diverse populations on campuses.

“Institutions are not required to implement race-neutral approaches if, in their judgment, the approaches would be unworkable,” the guidance said. “In some cases, race-neutral approaches will be unworkable because they will be ineffective to achieve the diversity the institution seeks.”

That guidance has now been rescinded, as have about a half-dozen similar documents, including some that sought to explain court rulings affirming the use of race to make admissions decisions.

In one such document, the Obama administration stated, “As the Supreme Court has recognized, diversity has benefits for all students, and today’s students must be prepared to succeed in a diverse society and an increasingly global workforce.”

The Trump administration’s announcement is more in line with Bush-era policy that discouraged affirmative action and instead encouraged the use of race-neutral alternatives, like percentage plans and economic diversity programs.

Though such guidance doesn’t have the force of law, schools could presumably use it to defend themselves against lawsuits over admission policies.

The Trump administration’s Justice Department had already signaled concern about the use of race in admissions decisions.

The department, for instance, sided this year with Asian-American plaintiffs who contend in a lawsuit against Harvard that the school unlawfully limits how many Asian students are admitted.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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