At a time when many colleges are distancing themselves from race-conscious admissions plans, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents is moving in the other direction, unanimously approving a systemwide policy  on Friday that allows institutions to consider race, ethnicity and family income among a range of factors in freshman admissions.
Regents say the "holistic" plan, which calls for each campus to consider a student’s academic achievements before looking to nonacademic factors, will allow colleges to enroll more racially and socioeconomically diverse classes.
The Wisconsin system has long struggled to raise minority numbers at its campuses. In the 2005-6 academic year, about 2 percent of incoming freshmen were Hispanic, less than 3 percent were black, less than 4 percent were Asian, and 89 percent were white or unknown.
But detractors say the plan will allow academically unqualified students into the system -- and some are questioning the legality of the move.
David G. Walsh, president of the regents, said Wisconsin is updating its admissions policy to stay in line with the 2003 Supreme Court ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger , in which the court, ruling in a case involving the University of Michigan, said that diversity is a compelling interest, and that race can be used as one factor among many in admissions.
“No one wants to talk about the importance of having a diverse campus,” Walsh said during the regents meeting. “We need to direct conversations [in that direction]. It’s the veteran student, it’s the football player -- we get something out of all of them enrolling. It’s truly about having a better educational experience for our students.”
Regent Danae Davis said she could not have been prouder of the board for approving the policy, which she said will allow for a more complete evaluation of students.
Added Kevin P. Reilly, president of the Wisconsin system, in a statement: “Every applicant deserves our consideration as a whole person."
Wisconsin's flagship campus in Madison and several others in the 26-campus system have taken into account factors such as race, ethnicity, hardship and life experiences for decades, Walsh points out. He and other regents have called their vote a clarification, not a policy shift.
Still, opponents of the move decry the end to the class rank plus test score admissions formula used by most colleges in the system, and argue that the regents are ignoring popular opinion about affirmative action.
"It's sad that the regents voted the way they did, especially in light of the recent referendum in Michigan , which shows how unpopular racial and ethnic preferences are," said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, which has challenged the use of race-sensitive admissions by colleges.
State Rep. Stephen Nass, a Republican who chairs the Wisconsin State Assembly's committee on colleges and universities, said the regents are sending the wrong message to high-achieving high school students who might be turned away from the most competitive schools because of the policy.
Nass said the board has "thumbed its nose" at two state statutes, one of which prohibits institutions from using tests based upon race, religion, national origin of or sex, and the other that states that students shouldn't be denied admission because of factors such as race or gender.
Along with other legislators who have opposed the plan, Nass said he would like to see the state's attorney general rule on the legality of the plan. He added that a lawsuit -- either from the state or from parents -- is possible.
But the Wisconsin system's legal counsel has assured the regents that they are on solid legal ground. David Giroux, a system spokesman, said colleges' consideration of nonacademic factors predates the statutes that were put into place in the early 1970s. He added that institutions are not applying a strict test, and that race and ethnicity will never be the most important criterion for admissions.
W. Lee Hansen, a professor emeritus of economics at Madison, said the policy relies on admissions officers making decisions based on highly subjective categories.
Hansen said the fact that colleges in the system began taking nonacademic factors into account before the statutes is immaterial, and that it's never been clear to him that the 2003 Supreme Court decision in the Michigan cases overrides state law.
He also questions the regents' tactics in enacting change. If the board wanted to alter the admissions process, it should have done so by persuading the state legislature to amend its laws, rather than adopting a policy that challenges statutes, he said.
Martina Spears, a student at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point and member of the campus's Black Student Union, said the institution is in desperate need of more racial diversity.
"If [the policy] is going to help bring more minorities into the campus, great," Spears said. "If not, there's no point. It all depends on which way it's going to go."
Hansen said that while the policy should attract great attention at Madison, the most competitive campus in the system, it's unlikely to make much of a difference at some of the other colleges, which have acceptance rates that are already close to 100 percent.
Giroux, the system spokesman, said the plan is still important for the less-selective colleges, because it sends a message that they will maintain open access.
“If all of our campuses were as competitive as Madison, we would be turning our backs on a significant portion of the population who emerge from high school incomplete as students," he said.