ATLANTA - The leader of Georgia's Senate Republicans broke with his party's traditional opposition to affirmative action Tuesday by announcing his support for retaining the University of Georgia's admissions policy of giving a preference to minority applicants.
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"I believe diversity in a community is good," Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, wrote in announcing his position. "I believe that UGA has an obligation to the citizens of Georgia to attempt to provide access to its flagship university to as many people as possible.
"Granting help to qualified minorities and trying to increase student diversity are worthy goals. It certainly is as worthy as alumni or residency preferences."
Mr. Johnson acknowledges his thinking may run counter to some of his Republican colleagues, who have steadfastly pushed legislation ending all affirmative action programs in state government.
House Minority Leader Bob Irvin, R-Atlanta, said he had not read Mr. Johnson's letter and would not comment.
A. Lee Parks, the Atlanta attorney who is suing the state over the university's policy, called it a "a political ploy" by a party hoping to win over black voters.
"If the state thinks this is a political issue, we're all in big trouble. You don't have a vote on suspending the constitution," Mr. Parks said.
University officials cheered Mr. Johnson's decision.
"We appreciate Sen. Johnson's forthright stand that the university's past policies have been correct," University of Georgia President Michael F. Adams said in a statement. "His support for affirmative action illustrates how this issue cuts across the political spectrum in its importance to all Georgians."
Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, said he welcomed Mr. Johnson's support of the policy "and our defense of diversity in Georgia."
University System Chancellor Stephen Portch said, "We appreciate Sen. Eric Johnson's thoughtfulness on this complex issue. I know that the University of Georgia is indeed exploring all its options to have an admissions policy that creates a strong and diverse academic environment."
"We fully support them in those efforts because we believe diversity is a critical element in the economic future of this state."
Whether the school will drop race as an entrance factor is subject to an ongoing review since a federal judge ruled in July that the university wrongly awards "racial bonus points" to minority applicants.
A decision is expected late this month or early next month.
Most students are admitted based on test scores and grades. A smaller group is rated on scores and grades as well as other factors, such as an applicant's race.
State officials have defended the policy, saying it helps increase diversity in the student body.
However, Mr. Parks has contended the policy discriminates, and has been suing the state over it for more than a year.
Mr. Johnson said he has been struggling with the issue of whether to support Georgia's policy.
"I have already thought there was a difference between affirmative action and quotas and set-asides," he said. "There ought to be a way and the courts ought to help us decide when a helping hand isn't a handout."
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