Tuesday, March 15, 2011

White Chick U

In many ways, the University of Georgia is a time machine.

When UGA senior Katie Weekly walks to class, she says "Hi, y'all" in a sweet-as-molasses accent to her Kappa Alpha Theta sorority sisters she meets along the way. A 5-foot-4 blonde with blue eyes, she's dressed in J. Crew jeans and a ribbed sweater, and looks and sounds as if she could've stepped off the campus 20 years ago. She has a boyfriend of three years. She wants to be a child psychologist and to raise a family in the South.

Katie is the classic UGA female student, a type that has changed little since the 1980s, but really has its roots in the 1950s - during the post-war boom at the then-all-white university 60 miles northeast of Atlanta.

Katie parties on football Saturdays the way girls did decades ago, perhaps dressed more daringly in strapless dresses but still formally, with pearls. She drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon and grills burgers. She flirts with boys dressed in polo shirts and khaki pants, with curved baseball caps covering their shaggy yet carefully groomed hair. She walks across the tree-shrouded North Campus, which looks much as it did in centuries past, and sips on mint juleps at General Beauregard's, a downtown Athens bar adorned with a Confederate flag.

And, like most UGA students, she only encounters black students sporadically. Forty-four years after the court-ordered integration of the university, UGA remains one of the least-integrated institutions in the state. Only 6 percent of the students are black.

But while so much is the same, something drastic has happened at UGA. Katie Weekly, a student from Duluth who came to UGA with a 3.8 GPA and attends tuition-free on a HOPE scholarship, represents the trend. What used to be a university that served as a geographical melting pot for all Georgians has now become an elite finishing school for white suburban girls.

Black students remain a distinct minority. But rural whites, especially males, are rapidly joining them. Those "country boys" were the very ones who dominated the school when it was all-white.

Now, while the university has skyrocketed in national rankings and academic prestige, its student body has shed any semblance of diversity. Blacks and rural whites are becoming as rare at UGA as Florida Gator bumper stickers. The benefits of the academic improvements are available primarily to a look-alike slice of the population.

Today, 60 percent of UGA students are women and 78 percent of the women are white. Out of a total of 33,405 students, 14,711 are white women. They often come from families that have just moved to Georgia from other parts of the country. The fashions they follow and the products they use have become the campus standards — they wear chic Seven jeans and preppy North Face jackets, and drive SUVs, Mercedes and Beamers. "UGA only represents metro Atlanta," says Bobbie Bagley, a UGA alum and resident of Leslie, a small town in Sumter County. "Anyone from south of Macon is doomed."

Last year, only seven students from Sumter County went to UGA. In 1964, 23 students from that county attended the university.

The phenomenon has caught the attention of the Legislature. At a budget hearing in mid-January, state senators voiced their concern about the lack of rural students attending UGA. University System Chancellor Thomas Meredith told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution he understood the lawmakers' concerns, but that it's a good problem to have. Since the advent of the HOPE scholarship in 1993, the rankings of UGA and other state institutions have soared.

But not everyone thinks better rankings at the expense of shrinking diversity is a good thing.

"UGA is becoming a suburban bedroom university," says Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus. "But the suburban students aren't the brick and mortar of the university. It's the native Georgians who go to every football game and invest a lot of money into the school. Now their children aren't getting in."

Some alumni now tell their children to look elsewhere, that they'll have trouble getting into UGA. College counselors urge high school students - well aware of the competitiveness and high standards at UGA - to apply to similar schools such as Alabama, Auburn and LSU, or in-state universities like Georgia Southern and Valdosta State.

The suburbs with the best schools get the most students into UGA. In the 2004 UGA incoming class, more than 880 students came from Gwinnett and Cobb counties. Of that class, 300 students came from three high schools: Chattahoochee and Milton in Alpharetta, and Walton in east Cobb. In 1985, 965 students at UGA came from Gwinnett. Today, 3,274 students come from there.

Hooks acknowledges that suburban students are multiplying partly because of the growing population of metro Atlanta. But he argues that newcomer families don't share the same loyalty to the school felt by generations of Georgia natives. They're not lifelong patriots in the Bulldog Nation.

The trend toward white girls has become so pronounced that the school's mascot, Uga, could be replaced by "Bulldog Barbie." Mattel markets a perky blond doll called "University Barbie" that's clad in cheerleading clothes. It could be interchangeable with thousands of young women walking around the Georgia campus.

Many of the UGA chicks are, indeed, blond and blue-eyed girls who grew up in the wholesome, affluent suburbs - just, presumably, like Barbie. But their brains, not their looks, account for their admissions success.

"Everyone knows girls are smarter than boys anyway," says Chuck Byrd of Perry, who has a daughter at UGA. "They work a lot harder in high school while the boys just sit around and drive their red pickup trucks."

UGA has transformed from a sleepy university that only loved football and would admit anyone who could breathe, to a national academic powerhouse that attracts some of the top faculty in the world. Ranked 19th among public universities by U.S. News & World Report, UGA now boasts an average SAT score for incoming freshmen of 1212. The school's rise has created a quandary. Most of Georgia's counties are now underrepresented in Athens.

The problem started in 1991 when then-Gov. Zell Miller pushed through the creation of a state lottery to pay for the new HOPE scholarship. Under his plan, Georgia students with a B average or higher could apply for the HOPE scholarship, which would cover full tuition for four years and give students a stipend — now at $300 — toward books annually. In 1993, the first student received the HOPE scholarship, and in its first 12 years, HOPE has generated $2.5 billion to help more than 800,000 students like Katie Weekly go to college. It's also raised the bar at Georgia's institutions, especially UGA. "The advent of HOPE has increased the academic rigor," says Douglas Bachtel, a rural sociologist at UGA. "When you increase the standards, you shrink the pool."

Since HOPE is based on merit, the kids who usually qualify are the affluent ones from the suburbs. In many cases, Bachtel notes, children who grow up in rural communities aren't instilled with the idea that education is important, or don't have access to tools to further their learning.

"A lot of it has to do with the history and culture of rural Georgia and the community a kid grows up in," Bachtel says. "For the kids in the suburbs, it's expected of them."

Many students at the university drive nice cars bought with the money their parents saved on tuition. Certainly, they can save a bundle. Katie chose UGA over the University of Southern California, which would've cost her parents $156,000 for four years. At UGA, she's able to live off-campus in a downtown apartment and drive a champagne Toyota 4Runner.

While HOPE lets Katie breeze through college financially, it's limited the options for others. What's more, a 2001 federal Appeals Court ruling made it more difficult to increase the student body's diversity. UGA's affirmative action admissions program - a program that gave students a statistical boost if they met any of 12 criteria, in which being non-white was one - was ruled unconstitutional.

The case, brought by three white women who weren't accepted to the university, alleged reverse discrimination. The court sided with the women, saying the admissions policy didn't "represent a compelling state interest for which the university could constitutionally defend its racial preferences."

It proved to be a victory for the "Bulldog Barbies." The admissions office would have to admit students strictly on merit, and that meant, in most cases, admitting those students who aced the SATs and earned high grade-point averages. Critics claimed the decision would decrease the representation of the state population at the school, and that's exactly what has happened: An influx of white women has left minorities and Georgia's small-town folks in the dust.

Albany's Victor Sullivan bleeds red and black. The son and grandson of UGA alumni, he grew up in Sanford Stadium. He watched the Bulldogs from the best seat in the house — UGA Athletic Director Vince Dooley's box — and threw a football around in President Michael Adams' yard. Victor's father, who served as president of the UGA Alumni Association, golfed with Adams and George Benson, dean of the business school. Victor heard his aunts and uncles reminisce about outdoor band parties and ridiculous drunken brawls at Georgia. Even before he was in high school, he told people he was going to UGA, just like his daddy and granddaddy. "I had my heart set on UGA," Victor says. "I thought I'd die if I didn't go there."

But during his senior year at Deerfield-Windsor, a private academy in Albany, Victor started to realize he might not have the grades to get into UGA. With solid B's and a 1050 SAT score, Victor was a good student, but not great. The average GPA of an incoming freshman at UGA these days is 3.7. So he applied to Auburn, Alabama and Valdosta State, as well. In April of his senior year, a letter arrived denying him admission to UGA. Victor says he was disappointed, but understood.

"Athens is a great place and I can see why the school would rather take kids with a 4.0," Victor says. "They have so many students to choose from, so why not take the best?"

Now a freshman at Valdosta State, Victor's working hard to keep his grades up so he can transfer to UGA in the next year or two. He says many of his friends didn't get into UGA and chose Auburn instead.

Victor's plight concerns much of his community: If a private school student whose father and grandfather are alumni and who grew up knowing the top dogs at UGA can't get in, who can?

Public school students stand an even worse chance. Bobbie Bagley, the UGA alum from Leslie, says one of the primary problems is the dismal public school system in rural Georgia. Most of the best teachers don't want to live in rural Georgia or deal with the small-town students, who for the most part, are out of control, she contends. Bagley, who sent her son and daughter to UGA, said they wouldn't have been admitted if she hadn't sent them to Baylor and McCallie, two prestigious private high schools in Chattanooga.

"Until people get control of the public school system, nothing is going to change," Bagley says. "There's got to be a political push to address these problems."

Chuck Byrd of Perry says everyone in the state - black, white, male, female, urban and rural - should be represented at UGA.

"Success is sometimes as dangerous as failure," Byrd says. "When you reach a point where it becomes impossible for a large segment of children graduating from high schools in parts of the state to get in, there's a problem. That's where we're at right now."

The irony is that white, rural Southerners are now in the same boat as African-Americans. Both are minorities on campus.

In June 2003, an opportunity to revise the strictly merit-based method of UGA's admissions arose. That summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that race could be used as a factor in admission decisions in a University of Michigan case.

The court saw a need to diversify universities and recognized that affirmative action was needed to achieve that goal. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the opinion, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."

Some Georgians got their hopes up - a Supreme Court precedent meant the school might be able to make race, or any minority factor, a component in admissions - but little has been done to promote that notion. When it comes to race, nothing ever seems to change at UGA.

"The administration is just placating the public," says Christopher Johnson, an African-American sophomore at UGA. "They're getting good sound bites to the outside and that's about it."

Johnson is referring to the task force UGA created to figure out a way to promote diversity on campus and add minority-conscious criteria back into the admissions process. There was talk of implementing affirmative action for students applying for this upcoming fall, but last month the task force decided to hold off until 2006.

Steve Shewmaker, the university's attorney, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the school needed more time to work through the proposed policy to ensure the school wouldn't get sued again. Black students at UGA scorned the administration's passive effort and claimed it didn't address the issue.

Johnson notes that the issues go deeper than admission policies. Last year, of the 538 African-Americans accepted to UGA, only 202 decided to attend because many black students don't feel welcome at the state's flagship university, even if they're qualified to enroll.

"It's not that we aren't getting in," Johnson says. "It's that no one wants to come to a school that's racially insensitive. Most minority students would rather go to a college that desires their presence and embraces diversity."

Johnson, editor of the minority student magazine InfUSion, says the university puts on a happy face for the press and then sits back and watches. With several racial incidents - including racial slurs being written on dorm room doors and a racially insensitive political cartoon being printed in the student newspaper - Johnson says it's no surprise that minorities would rather go elsewhere.

Keith Parker, associate provost for institutional diversity at UGA, says the school is working hard to recruit minorities and promote diversity forums on campus. Already the admissions office has accepted more black students for next year under the early-admission program than the previous year.

The school is hosting a series of forums beginning this month and encouraging prospective minority students to shadow current minority students during weekend visits. Parker says UGA is also working to recruit in rural Georgia, as the number of rural students in the student body has dwindled.

"We need to give more attention to communities in rural settings," Parker says. "We need to be more aggressive and find ways to bring people from across Georgia to the university."

Parker believes rural students are getting into the university but choosing not to come because of distance. The growth of other state schools, from Georgia Southern to West Georgia, into full-fledged universities, has diverted some rural students.

"Many students want to be able to visit family and friends on a regular basis," Parker says. "But when they spend four to five hours traveling one-way, they choose to go to schools closer to home."

For Katie Weekly, the 40-minute drive home is perfect, and she couldn't imagine herself at any other college. She loves spritzing on perfume, dabbing on lip gloss and brushing her hair before heading downtown to sip on rum and Cokes. She loves chatting about cute clothes and cute boys with her sorority sisters. And she loves cheering until she loses her voice at home football games.

"I love going to Georgia and living in the South," Katie says.

But for others, the sameness that Katie represents at the university is too much - even for other suburban white chicks.

Megan Fraley is one of them. She grew up in the part of Smyrna that's now called Vinings. Megan went to Campbell High School, played the viola and was on the softball team. During her junior year of high school, she started looking at colleges. A HOPE scholarship recipient, she seriously considered UGA and Georgia Southern. But something in Athens made her feel uncomfortable. She found a majority of white suburban kids driving around campus in their BMWs with Greek bumper stickers plastered to the windows. That made her nervous. "I didn't want to be just another white kid from suburban Atlanta," Megan says.

She solidified her decision during a 'Dawg football game. In the fall of her senior year in high school, Megan traveled to Sanford Stadium. She wore a UGA football T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. Megan says when she arrived, she got funny looks, and the looks came from females in "their heels and red and black cocktail dresses."

"I couldn't believe I was an outcast for not dressing up for a football game," Megan says. "I mean, it was a football game!"

Without a second thought, she chose Georgia Southern. She realized there was no diversity at UGA, and that she didn't want to be a preppy Greek. Even though only 34 percent of UGA students go Greek, their influence outweighs their numbers.

At Georgia Southern, Megan says her peers came from across all of Georgia, and weren't just suburban, Atlanta-born, upper-middle-class snobs.

Now an operations manager with a transportation company in Atlanta, Megan says she's happy she didn't attend UGA.

"When I run into old high school classmates that went to UGA, it reminds me that I made the right decision," she says. "They're all annoyingly bubbly and snobby."


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