MADISON -- Wisconsin legislators heard Monday from the president of a group alleging the University of Wisconsin's admissions policies discriminates against whites. Students had protested when the group's report was first released in September, but on Monday they stayed out of the Assembly hearing to communicate to legislators there are more important issues facing the state.
Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), chairman of the Assembly's higher education committee, asked the president of the Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity, Roger Clegg, to discuss the group's report on the University of Wisconsin's undergraduate and law school admissions. "There is overwhelming evidence that the University of Wisconsin in engaging in racial and ethnic discrimination, and it should stop," he told the committee. Of the university's 42,180 students, 2.6 percent are African-American and 3.8 percent are Hispanic.
Students to Legislature: Get Your Priorities Straight
Clegg last visited Madison in September when his organization released its report. At that time, students took over the press conference where Clegg announced CEO's findings, and rallied when Clegg debated with a Wisconsin law professor over the merits of affirmative action.
On Monday, university student groups avoided the hearing room altogether. "The legislature already knows our position on this issue," said Erika Wolf, field organizer for the United Council of UW Students. "There are more important issues facing the state," she said, and "real challenges facing students of all backgrounds."
According to a press release from a coalition of student groups, those issues included "reining in the skyrocketing cost of college, reducing debilitating student loan debt, the ability to get a decent job upon graduation, and the increased discrimination that students will soon face at the polls [as a result of newly-enacted voter ID laws]." The student groups held a press conference prior to the Assembly committee's meeting, then marched to the student union where they watched the hearing remotely.
Democrats Question Clegg
Legislative Republicans on the committee mostly asked Clegg to walk them through his report, but Democrats questioned Clegg's motivations and methodology.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) said Clegg's organization has a "singular focus" and the report "had a pre-determined outcome" that was "totally hung up on race." Pocan questioned CEO's allegations that students of color were less likely to complete their degree without considering whether students had transferred to other schools, and criticized the report for not looking at the academic performance of students of color.
Clegg replied, "if you are not even continuing at the university, I think that has a bearing on your academic performance." Some disagreed. Rep. Terece Berceau (D-Madison), who had worked fourteen years at the university in a position that included recruitment, said "one of the issues we had [in recruiting and retaining students] ... was students of color saying our city was too white. That our campus was too white. That it was not comfortable for them." (In the viewing room at Memorial Union, students cheered and shouted, "that's right!")
She asked, "have you ever been in a situation where you walk into a lecture hall of two hundred people and been the only white person? Would you be comfortable with that?" (Clegg said he is comfortable in such a situation). Berceau also said she could speak personally to the success of students of color who were admitted with lower test scores.
Rep. Berceau's sentiments were echoed by Rep. Barbara Toles (D-Milwaukee). "It is embarrassing to me the lack of diversity on [the University of Wisconsin-Madison] campus," she said.
Pocan called Clegg a "coaster" who purported to enlighten "us flyover country folk." Dissatisfied with Clegg's explanations of the report's perceived deficiencies, Pocan said, "you'd think you'd be more aware of what is in the report before flying out here to tell us what to do."
"I'm flattered to be considered an elite snob looking down on Wisconsin, but I assure you that's not the case," Clegg said. Pocan fired back that "elite snob" was not the word he had in mind -- "I was thinking more good ol' boy."
Rep. Nass said he had no plans to introduce legislation at this time.
Legislature Has Limited Power to Set Admissions Policies
At the student union, students pointed out that the legislature has little ability to change the university's admissions policies. Those standards are set by the University of Wisconsin system, which includes all of the state's public universities, and by students through Wisconsin's shared governance system.
"They're just wasting their time," said Wolf. "What legislators are really trying to do here is find an issue to divide us, to distract us from the real issues facing students and facing the state," she said. "We need to move forward."