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No place to put up barriers

If any force can bring a semblance of real equality to America, it is higher education. Unfortunately, many public universities, including those in California and Texas, have become hotbeds of racial, ethnic and gender strife because of efforts to reverse their affirmative action programs.

Last year, the California Board of Regents banned affirmative action in university admissions, and Texas did the same after a federal court upheld a reverse discrimination lawsuit against the University of Texas law school brought by white students. As supporters of affirmative action predicted, the bans have led to dramatic drops in minority applications in both states' universities. The number of black students applying to the University of Texas law school fell 42 percent this year. And although the University of Texas trains one of every 11 Mexican-American lawyers, applications from Hispanic students fell 14 percent. In California, black applications fell 8.2 percent, those from Hispanics 3.7 percent and those from American-Indians by 9 percent.

College officials and students say many would-be applicants are concerned that the official reversal of affirmative-action policies is creating an atmosphere in which minority students feel even more unwelcome and isolated. The comments of Michael Sharlot, dean of the University of Texas law school, sum up the concerns of affirmative action advocates: "We're a public law school with the function of preparing people to serve not just as providers of legal services but as civic leaders. For us to go from the leading provider of Mexican-American and black lawyers in the country to a vastly reduced role is just awful."

Minority applicants who are clearly unqualified should not be admitted through affirmative action programs. But bright minority students from disadvantaged homes whose test scores and grade point averages are not entirely reflective of their abilities and potential should be given every reasonable opportunity to earn a degree. Good affirmative action plans do just that: They take into account the inferior education that many minority students receive in public school and open doors to promising students who otherwise would be shut out of college altogether.

Effective affirmative action programs don't just help minority students. They enhance the academic and cultural life of our universities. Most important, they provide a crucial tool for a democratic society seeking to provide real opportunity for those who have been disadvantaged. Because of the leveling power of higher learning, federal and state officials should be helping universities find viable ways to maintain diverse student populations. Instead, too many politicians and officials are erecting needless roadblocks.