UW-Madison waged an all-day offensive Tuesday against a charge that it engages in discriminatory admissions practices — as students and staff rallied on Bascom Hill, hijacked a press conference and disputed the findings of the admissions allegation.
Interim Chancellor David Ward, staff and students defended the campus against what officials called an "attack" on its diversity efforts by the Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity. The conservative think tank alleged in a report unveiled Tuesday that UW-Madison discriminates against whites and Asians by admitting less qualified black and Latino students.
"I took it as a slap in the face and an insult, almost presuming that none of us worked hard and just got here because of the color of our skin," Mia McKinney, a UW-Madison senior from Racine and a member of PEOPLE, a program to encourage minorities to apply to the school, said of the study. "I think that's a huge presumption and assumption."
The subject is a sensitive one at UW-Madison, which has tried hard to increase the numbers of minorities in recent years. The school suffered an embarrassing scandal in 2000 when an official superimposed a black student on the photograph of a white crowd on the cover of an admissions catalog.
Ward said UW-Madison uses a "holistic" admissions process, taking into account a range of factors, including grades, test scores, activities, leadership and more.
"Any student who is accepted at UW-Madison is here because he or she has the potential and the capacity to succeed," Ward said. "No one is admitted solely because of race or ethnicity."
Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, said his group is "not against diversity; we are against discrimination."
Using data supplied by the university, the center's study found that black and Hispanic applicants in 2007 and 2008 were more likely than their white or Asian counterparts to be admitted to UW-Madison, despite having lower average test scores and class rank.
Clegg introduced the study at an 11 a.m. news conference Tuesday at the DoubleTree hotel, 525 W. Johnson St. He was immediately peppered with questions from students and faculty members questioning the analysis.
After about 45 minutes, more than 100 students and others stormed into the room, chanting "power to the people!" and "more than our scores!" to a steady drumbeat. Clegg packed up his briefcase and left. Students took over the microphone and began to share personal stories about the value of diversity.
Police arrived on the scene to monitor the crowd. Three DoubleTree employees reported getting pushed or knocked down in the melee, but no one was seriously injured and there were no arrests. DoubleTree reported no property damage but criticized the protesters, calling them a "mob" in a press release.
Meantime, the university issued a press release quoting Ward and others defending its admissions practices.
Faculty and students also disputed the center's study. It found, for example, that UW-Madison admitted about 72 percent of black applicants in 2008, compared to 60 percent of white applicants.
But data UW-Madison posts on its website shows 41 percent of black applicants were admitted in 2008, compared to 55 percent of white applicants.
Neither Clegg nor the university could explain why there was a difference in the calculations. Both stood by their numbers Tuesday.
The center has conducted similar studies at dozens of universities over the years, but Clegg said UW-Madison's reaction is the "worst" he has ever seen.
On Tuesday night, about 100 students rallied on Bascom Hill before Clegg debated Larry Church, a UW-Madison law professor and constitutional scholar, at Union South. Clegg — who was introduced to booing by many of the 850 people in attendance — argued the benefits of affirmative action don't outweigh the costs, which include setting a bad precedent, creating resentment and removing incentives for academic excellence.
"The U.S. needs to accommodate itself to racial reality," countered Church, who said the portion of the country's population under 18 years old will be predominantly non-white in a little more than 10 years.
Clegg agreed the country is becoming increasingly multiethnic and multiracial, but said people given preferences may face discrimination if they become overrepresented. "It's a recipe for disaster."