Debate over college admissions flares around WA’s R-88


Can I get my child into the University of Washington?

It’s a question parents ask, given the competitive admissions process at a state university with a national and international reputation.

High school students who carry much of the stress around the pursuit of a college degree ask, “Can I get into UW?”

As voters statewide make their decision on R-88 — either approving or rejecting I-1000, which would restore affirmative action policies in public employment, education and contracting — a thornier question is posed. Will the outcome of the referendum on the Nov. 5 ballot make it easier or more difficult for a student to get into UW and other public universities and colleges?

Hyeok Kim, a former deputy Seattle mayor, is urging voters to support R-88. She said there’s no answer to the question.

“The idea that Initiative 1000 will make it easier or not for your own child to get into the University of Washington is a prediction that no one can make. And I don’t think that is what Initiative 1000 is about,” Kim said. “Initiative 1000 is about the systems we have today that disadvantage certain groups from having the same kind of access to opportunities that other groups have.

“For much of our history in the United States, and, quite frankly, even in Washington state, the systems have been built and continue to operate to advantage some groups over others.”

When asked to elaborate about the systems, she referred to institutional racism. It’s generally defined as the systematic distribution of resources, power and opportunity in society to the benefit of people who are white and the exclusion of people of color.

Kim said I-1000 will allow Washington to no longer be at a competitive disadvantage when public universities and colleges are looking for the top talented students. Forty-two other states do not ban affirmative action.

“Top talent doesn’t always necessarily equate to who’s got the highest SAT scores. Institutions of higher education have long gone beyond the idea that numbers alone can measure the future success and potential of students,” she said.

Kan Qiu is a Bellevue resident who owns a software publishing firm and is the primary sponsor of the petition to put R-88 on the ballot. He is asking voters to reject it because I-1000 will overturn I-200 — which voters approved in 1998. I-200 prohibits state and local governments from using race, color, ethnicity or national origin in making decisions on university and college admissions, hiring and promotions and contracting.

Qiu said he is not against affirmative action, but is against racial preferences and quotas — which the backers of I-1000 say would not be implemented. He predicted that approval of R-88 would lead to fewer Asians and other racial groups being admitted to UW.

“Certain student populations will be artificially decreased based on a government study. This is not going to be individually equal anymore. People are going to be judged by their skin color again,” he said.

Qiu has rebutted the statement by the Washington Fairness Coalition, the campaign committee urging voters to approve R-88, that diversity in public university and college enrollment in Washington has declined over the past two decades in proportion to the state’s population. He cited 2016 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics to say that whites were the only racial group significantly under-represented.

“The proponents of R-88 claim they are fighting for minorities. That’s the contradictory part of it,” he said.

Based on fall 2018 figures, race/ethnicity for UW’s enrollment on all campuses breaks down this way, with state population percentages in parentheses:

41.3 percent white (68.5 per cent)

21.3 percent Asian (8.5 per cent)

8.2 percent Hispanic (13 per cent)

6.4 percent two or more races (4.3 per cent)

3.8 percent black (3.7 per cent)

0.5 percent American Indian (1.3 per cent)

0.4 percent Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (0.7 per cent)

The other two categories are international students at 14.6 percent and unknown at 3.4 percent.

In a June blog post, UW president Ana Mari Cauce said she supported the Legislature’s approval of I-1000. In explaining why, she referenced the nationwide scandal in which several parents allegedly bribed test administrators and college coaches to rig the admissions process to get their children admitted to prestigious universities.

“This is not about advantaging one group over another — although as the ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal has laid bare, it is clear that wealth, status and other elements of privilege do give some students a clear advantage. And all too many events in these last several years have reminded us that we are still not a country where we judge people simply by the ‘content of their character,’” Cauce wrote.

She said “barriers and biases affect people differently by race, ethnicity and gender.”

“I-1000 is not about quotas, which I would never endorse or support. It is about leveling the playing field so that we can better compete in admission and hiring with top public universities and private universities around the country and right here in our state,” she wrote.

Paul Seegert, UW’s director of admissions, said the administration would work with a faculty governing panel on any possible changes to the admissions policy if voters approve R-88 and I-1000 takes effect. No decisions have been made, he said.

Ward Connerly, a former University of California regent who successfully led ballot initiatives against affirmation action in California and Washington, is opposed to I-1000. If voters approve it, Connerly said “individuality will be a thing of the past” at UW and across the state when it comes to college admissions as well as public employment and contracting.

“Groups — black people, Native Americans, Asians — would be categorized. The equity movement would try to, based on the disparity study, bring their admissions into line with what would be considered ‘equitable,’” which is not defined by I-1000, he said. Disparity studies determine if inequities exist that adversely affect minorities and/or women.

Connerly, who lives in Idaho, recently has campaigned on Twitter against R-88.

“Is it fair to discriminate against a girl of Asian descent so that a preference can be given to a young man of half African descent when he applies to U of WA? Is it fair to put the stigma of being a ‘quota admit’ on the back of that young man when he didn’t ask for any preference, didn’t need any, and didn’t even want any? Is it fair to presume that certain groups are incapable of competing on their own?” he tweeted.

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.


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