For years, the University of Washington lost top job candidates and turned down stellar students, administrators say, because it couldn’t consider race or gender in hiring or admissions decisions.

Those professors and students were snatched up by top colleges that didn’t have to follow the same rules: Stanford. Yale. MIT. Other states’ flagship universities.

Now, the rules may be changing.

On Sunday, the Washington Legislature passed Initiative 1000, overturning the state’s 20-year-old, voter-approved ban on affirmative action. That prohibition, known as I-200, blocked the government from giving preferential treatment to, or discriminating against, people and groups on the basis of sex, ethnicity, color, race or national origin.

On Monday, a group filed a referendum measure to repeal I-1000; the group has 90 days to collect 130,000 valid signatures.

UW officials reacted cautiously to the new initiative, saying they have not yet had time to study it. But they described how I-200 has hampered efforts to diversify both the faculty and student body, especially since universities in other states — and even private schools in this state — don’t have to abide by the law.

“When we’re playing by different rules, it really puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce, who says she herself benefited from affirmative action when she was hired as a UW assistant professor of psychology in 1986, 12 years before I-200. Cauce, who was born in Cuba, is Latina.

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Affirmative action is usually framed as a way to allow more students of color to be admitted to selective universities. When I-200 passed, the percentage of students of color who applied and were admitted to the UW Seattle plunged.

Philip Ballinger, the longtime head of admissions at the UW, says the university then developed a “holistic admissions process” that looks at factors beyond GPA and standardized test scores as well as markers of socioeconomic status. That can help students who grow up poor, who are the first in their families to go to college or don’t have access to rigorous high-school classes, and it has helped the UW improve the diversity of its student body.

Here’s where holistic admissions doesn’t help: It means the university often can’t admit women or students of color whose test scores or GPAs are just a nudge lower, and didn’t come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The kids that the UW can’t admit under the affirmative action ban may have come from college-educated families, or went to academically strong high schools. Ballinger described them as being in the “strong middle group.”

Ballinger likened the UW’s use of socioeconomic factors to Michelangelo using a sledgehammer to carve David or the Pieta. “If you have finer tools, you’re probably going to do a better job in creating a richly diverse student body,” he said.

The bar for getting into the UW today is high. In fall 2018, the average high-school GPA for admitted students at UW Seattle was 3.8, and SAT scores averaged 1,330, or in the 89th percentile.

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Meanwhile, the UW must also follow the same rules in hiring, said Cauce. In fall of 2016, only about 1.8% of UW faculty were black, and only 4.4% were Hispanic/Latino. If the new initiative stands, “I think this will allow us to compete on a more equal footing,” she said.

Cauce said she was one of two applicants who made it into the final pool for an assistant professorship in psychology; the other, a white man, had more experience. The UW hired them both. “I freely admit to being an affirmative action baby,” she said.

The constraints caused by I-200 are not just about race. For example, female students make up only about a third of the UW’s computer science school, but the UW can’t use gender as a factor to admit more women. “Some other excellent institutions in the country have been able to eat our lunch,” Ballinger said.

The UW has sometimes been cited as a positive example of how race-neutral policies haven’t affected diversity, including in studies by Richard D. Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation who has long argued for affirmative action based on class, not on race.

While it’s true that the UW has been able to diversify its student body in the years since I-200, “no one here would say we’re doing a good job,” Ballinger said.

In fall 2018, about 3% of UW’s incoming freshmen were black, and less than 10 percent were Hispanic/Latino. Many students of color, especially men of color, have said they feel isolated and unsupported, and their graduation rates are lower than white or Asian students.

In the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court has refined how universities can use race in admissions, even in those states that don’t prohibit it, said Deirdre Bowen, associate professor of law at Seattle University.

Universities cannot use quotas, and race can’t be a defining feature of why a student is chosen for admission, she said.

As a private school, Seattle University doesn’t have to follow I-200, and does use race in considering admissions, she said. That’s allowed the Jesuit school to create a diverse enrollment.

Ending the ban on affirmative action could also change the way the city of Seattle solicits contracts — but the mayor’s office says it won’t have any immediate change on how the city hires employees.

Mark Prentice, a spokesman for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, said that I-200 had led to a loss of companies bidding for city contractors, because the city was unable to recruit women and minority-owned businesses.

Durkan, City Attorney Pete Holmes and the entire Seattle City Council had written to the state Legislature in February, urging passage of I-1000. They wrote that less than 3% of state money spent on contracts went to women and minority-owned businesses. Restoring affirmative action, Prentice said in an email, would give the city more tools to address inequities in contracting.

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But, Prentice said, the reinstitution of affirmative action would not have any immediate changes on the city’s hiring process.

Whitney Abrams, the “chief people officer” for King County Executive Dow Constantine, said the county was looking at its hiring practices to see where it could “remove barriers that will move us closer to our equity and social justice goal.”

The I-1000 campaign submitted more than 400,000 signatures. If the Legislature had not passed the measure, it would have gone to the November ballot. Republicans argued that the public deserved a chance to vote on whether to overturn I-200, which passed on November 1998 with 58 percent approval from voters.

I-1000 passed largely along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans opposed.

Staff writer David Gutman contributed reporting.