By Adam Wollner
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has historically been overwhelmingly white, and administrators would like to change that.
Throughout the past 15 years, UW-Madison has implemented several recruitment programs targeted at racial and ethnic minority areas around both Wisconsin and the United States. It uses a partially race-based admissions policy in an attempt to break through the campus’ traditional mold and enhance its students’ learning experience.
“What diversity brings, ideally, is not just there are other people in your classroom who look different from you, but there are other people in your classroom who think different from you, and that you will get to hear from them and interact with them as to get that educational benefit,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a UW-Madison professor of sociology and educational policies.
Goldrick-Rab, a strong proponent of affirmative action and other measures to increase diversity in higher education, said UW-Madison has not done enough in the past to ensure a greater number of minorities attend the university. Currently, fewer than 15 percent of UW-Madison’s undergraduates are racial minorities.
According to Goldrick-Rab, the average ninth grade white student has a 20 percent chance of being admitted to UW-Madison, compared to just 2 percent for the average black ninth grader.
“In that environment, if we do nothing, there’ll be 2 percent on our campus and I don’t think any of us want to be in the 2 percent anywhere,” Goldrick-Rab said.
To address this gap, UW-Madison has attempted to better prepare minority high school students to enter college by the time they apply as seniors. The university’s Diversity Office has launched several programs over the last 15 years aimed at recruiting and training students from traditional minority areas around the state and country.
Building a pipeline: PEOPLE and Posse
Two of UW-Madison’s most successful diversity initiatives have been the PEOPLE program and the Posse Program, which aim to create a pipeline from underrepresented minority areas to the university for students.
PEOPLE (Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence) is a six-year program that racial minority and economically disadvantaged students from around Wisconsin can enroll in the summer after sixth grade.
In middle school, students in the program spend several weeks during the summer in workshops on the UW-Madison campus. Once they become rising 10th graders, the participants head back to campus to take a broad range of classes, prepare for the ACT and gain experience in research professional fields.
In 2005, the university added another part to the program, PEOPLE Prep, which prepares elementary school children for the middle school portion by sending tutors to the individual schools to work with the students.
UW-Madison Chief Diversity Officer Assistant Ruby Paredes, who helped found PEOPLE in 1999, said it is paramount for the university to become involved in the lives of young people early on, especially those from poor and minority areas, to make college a part of their career options.
“The earlier you can get into the life of a young person, to get them to think about and prepare for college, the greater the possibility that they will actually get into a college or a university,” Paredes said.
In 2002, UW-Madison became the first major research university in the country to employ another initiative, the Posse Program, which is designed to promote a more diverse student body. The Posse Program aims to bring groups of high school students from four major metropolitan areas: Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., together to a university.
After a grueling admissions process, the students enroll in a 32-week training program during their senior year of high school to prepare for college. Like PEOPLE, participation in the Posse Program does not guarantee acceptance into UW-Madison, but those who are admitted receive a full four-year tuition scholarship.
Paredes said these relatively new programs will continue to become more effective over time as they expand. PEOPLE has already grown from 66 to over 1,300 students, while the size of the Posse Programs has increased from 20 to 140 over the past decade. Meanwhile, UW-Madison’s total minority enrollment has increased by around six percent since 1999.
“We’re pretty pleased with the way these students are becoming part of the UW-Madison community and experiencing what we call the ‘Wisconsin experience’ in a very positive way,” Paredes said.
Aside from recruiting students of color, UW-Madison has also used a form of affirmative action by considering race as a factor in its admissions policy.
According to UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas, the university takes a “holistic approach” to the admissions process: An applicant’s race and diversity are taken into account alongside a host of other factors, including academic achievement, leadership qualities and special talents.
“In our view we don’t practice affirmative action, we practice basically a comprehensive review of applicants to the university,” Lucas said. “We attempt to increase the overall diversity of our population looking at all those different factors to try to come up with the most well-rounded class that we can.”
However, affirmative action is not a universally accepted tool to increase diversity on campus. Last fall, the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank, released a study claiming UW-Madison’s admissions policies give preferential treatment to blacks and Latinos over whites and Asians solely based on race.
Even though Lucas said race is simply “an additional consideration as your application is reviewed” similar to extracurricular activities, Roger Clegg, the president of the CEO, argued UW-Madison practices “racial discrimination” against white students.
“It’s wrong to sort people according to skin color or national origin,” Clegg said. “The focus should not be on a pre-determined racial and ethnic mix.”
The affirmative action debate will make its way to the nation’s highest court for the first time in nearly a decade this fall, as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of University of Texas-Austin’s race-based admissions policy.
UW-Madison political science professor Ryan Owens said the Supreme Court is more conservative than the last time it ruled on an affirmative action case, but he does not suspect the Court will completely strike down the constitutionality of race-based admissions policies.
“The Court clearly granted review to this case because it wants to change affirmative action jurisprudence,” said Owens, who added, “I don’t think they’re going to come out and say you can’t use race.”
Even if UW-Madison is forced to significantly alter its admissions policy after the Supreme Court’s ruling later this year, Goldrick-Rab said she is confident the university would remain committed to promoting a diverse student body on campus through other means.
“We’ve had such a longstanding commitment to that here that I don’t think there’s going to be anything that’s going to stop us from doing it, I think we’ve always done it and I think the campus has always been behind us doing it,” Goldrick-Rab said.
Moving forward: The ideal situation
Amid UW-Madison’s efforts to increase diversity among the student body, some on campus are still pushing the university to do more to create an environment where underrepresented minority students feel welcomed.
Goldrick-Rab said she would like to see the university make an even greater push to recruit students from diverse areas of the state, such as Milwaukee. She said one option at the university’s disposal is to provide internships to students of a variety of racial minorities and send them to these regions to work with students of all ages.
“A big part of it is that they don’t think we want them,” Goldrick-Rab said. “We don’t look like the place they came from.”
Niko Magallon, a member of the Multicultural Student Coalition, said one way to encourage students from diverse racial backgrounds to attend UW-Madison is by strengthening the student organizations on campus aimed at minority students. Magallon said these types of organizations create a “safe space” for these students and make them feel more welcomed and part of a community.
“I think it would help to ensure the health of those student orgs because they are very vital to the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students,” said Magallon, who also served as the Diversity Chair for the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) this past semester.
Additionally, Goldrick-Rab said the university could more effectively leverage the diversity already present on campus. She said classes should be more focused on student interaction—as opposed to a professor constantly lecturing—so students have the opportunity to learn about their classmates’ different backgrounds and experience different perspectives.
“It’s really where the students talk to each other with the professor present that helps teach them how to speak to each other,” Goldrick-Rab said.
If the sufficient amount of funding and resources were made available to the university, Goldrick-Rab said she would like to see every single faculty member assigned to a student as a mentor, so students of all races would feel welcome on campus through individual interaction with teachers.
“You put together the money with the actual mentorship and you create a climate where people feel like they were actually wanted here and not here under duress of a policy that people are fighting over,” Goldrick-Rab said.