By GRACE FRANK of The Tampa Tribune
ORLANDO – State leaders vote to end racial and gender preferences in public university admissions.
In a landmark vote late Thursday, Florida dumped a 22-year-old policy of giving special consideration to race and sex in public university admissions – becoming the first state to end such affirmative action without being ordered by court or ballot. As expected, the Florida Board of Regents capped a long and spirited meeting by voting unanimously to endorse Gov. Jeb Bush’s One Florida plan. The board, which governs the 10 state universities, agreed to replace racial and gender preferences with guaranteed seats for top public high school graduates.
The vote followed almost seven hours of debate, including four hours of often passionate and personal comment by more than 90 students, parents, pastors and politicians. If Bush’s plan had existed previously, “I wouldn’t be in college today,” said Maria Jose Hays, a University of South Florida sophomore who came in under a federal program targeting minorities and low-income students.
“You’re going to deny my little sister a chance to go to college,” she charged.
“We do not live in a colorblind society,” declared U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville. She reminded Adam Herbert, the first black to lead the state university system, that his own success undoubtedly depended to some degree on efforts to advance minorities.
Herbert countered that the governor’s proposal would force universities to work even harder to recruit minorities. Such work could include outreach programs with public schools serving large minority populations or earning only D or F grades on a state-issued report card. “We have not ended a program but amended one,” Herbert said, even as he acknowledged the traditional preferences would be halted. “Everyone will be judged not on race or ethnic background, but on the basis of what they’ve done with their lives.”
When Bush announced his plan suddenly last fall, it was judged widely as an effort to blunt a potentially damaging campaign by businessman Ward Connerly, who has led ballot initiatives that drove affirmative action out in California and Washington state. In Texas, a court challenge produced similar results.
Bush has proposed ending hiring preferences in state contracts through executive order, but regents had to weigh in on the university admissions aspect of the plan. Approval was expected – though it didn’t come quickly or quietly.
SOME 550 PEOPLE, mostly students, packed a University of Central Florida auditorium to voice their concerns Thursday.
They were polite, but they ignored board Chairman Thomas Petway’s admonitions for silence, erupting in cheers whenever a fellow student made a point against the governor’s plan.
They gave a standing ovation to state Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, whose overnight sit-in in the governor’s office last month delayed a regents vote set for Jan. 21. It resulted in three public hearings attended by about 1,500 people.
Meek, like most speakers, asked that Bush and the regents delay implementing a plan that offers no guarantee of maintaining diversity.
“This plan looks very good on paper; but in actuality, it’s full of lies and promises that are bound to be broken,” said Telishia Terry, a UCF student.
At USF, more than 50 students formed carpools to drive to the meeting one day after they rallied on campus to protest the governor’s plan. Their sendoff Thursday was led by Ernestine Bradley, wife of presidential candidate Bill Bradley.
To bolster his campaign in Florida, the Democratic former senator has criticized the Republican governor’s plan.
THE BUSH PLAN automatically admits to a state university the top 20 percent of each public high school’s graduating class, provided the students complete at least 19 credits in core academics.
Regents estimate that guarantee not only will maintain diversity but might bring 400 more minority students to enroll this fall.
Of the 220,000 total students in the system, 32 percent are minorities, records show.
Regents plan to put more weight on diversity in job evaluations given university presidents.
Exceptions are expected to continue for students who don’t qualify by grades or test scores. In the past, 12 percent of freshmen came through this route yearly.
That number is expected to drop to 10 percent this fall as racial or gender preferences are replaced with allowances for family income, home language, hometown, or special athletic or artistic talents.
Staff writer William March contributed to this report. Grace Frank can be reached at [email protected] and (813) 259-8285.