Top UW-Madison officials vigorously defended their admissions policies at a sometimes-testy legislative hearing Monday, called after the president of a conservative think tank leveled a charge that the university engages in "severe discrimination" based on race and ethnicity.

But it's unclear what changes, if any, will come as a result of the informational hearing, which lasted more than three hours.

The Virginia-based Center for Equal Opportunity, which opposes affirmative action, alleged last month in two reports that UW-Madison gives preference to black and Hispanic students over white and Asian students in undergraduate and law school admissions.

Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the center, flew in to present testimony about the findings to the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities.

University leaders say having a diverse group of students is important. They use what they call a "holistic" admissions process, a comprehensive review that takes into account grades, test scores, recommendations and extracurricular activities, among other things.

"We categorically and without hesitation reject the analysis performed by the (Center for Equal Opportunity)," said Paul DeLuca, UW-Madison provost, in testimony before the committee.

Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, chairman of the committee, said "there is a concern" about the university's admissions policy. But he said he has no plans to introduce legislation to ban the use of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions, saying he thinks elected officials might be "uncomfortable" voting on the sensitive issue.

"I think it was very clear race and ethnicity are used," he said. "I think the public has a right to know that. A lot of parents sending their kids off to college don't know that."

He said that the UW Board of Regents could change the admissions policy and that might be more likely as Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, appoints individuals to the board. Most of the sitting Regents were appointed by former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat.

Clegg suggested that the people of Wisconsin could vote on a referendum to end the consideration of race in admissions, which has happened in other states.

"I'm prepared to put this to a vote to the people of Wisconsin," Clegg said. "Ask whether the people of Wisconsin think race and ethnicity should be considered in deciding who gets in."

Republicans and Democrats on the committee traded barbs at the hearing. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, accused the study's authors of being unprepared and "very biased," asking Clegg why the report didn't take into consideration academic performance. Nass shot back that Pocan was engaging in "name calling and allegations."

DeLuca and Adele Brumfield, UW-Madison's admissions director, walked the panel through UW-Madison's admissions process.

Brumfield said the most important factor in a student's admission is his or her academic credentials, and no student is accepted solely because of race or ethnicity. But she said some students who do not meet regular admissions criteria get a second review, such as recruited athletes, veterans, artists, musicians and targeted minorities (African Americans, American Indians, Hispanic students and Southeast Asian students).

The center's report found that in 2007 and 2008, UW-Madison admitted more than seven out of every 10 black applicants and more than eight out of 10 Hispanics, versus about six in 10 Asian and white applicants.

UW-Madison officials say that black applicants make up only 2.5 percent of those offered admission and only 2.8 percent of the undergraduate student body.

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