James M. Williams

Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson swears in James M. Williams as chairman of the LSU Board of Supervisors on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018.

Two members of the LSU Board of Supervisors voiced their support Friday for the administration’s decision to discount ACT scores and another five board members privately backed the change in admission standards.

That’s almost a majority of the 16-member panel that decides policy at the state’s flagship university and that could overturn the new criteria university officials quietly began using in deciding who can go to LSU.

But the board is not making any official statements on the issue until Tuesday, newly installed board Chairman James M. Williams said after the daylong meeting. He said he hadn’t polled board members to see where they stand on the issue that has brought a lot of attention and some criticism to university administrators.

One issue being hashed out is whether an official board vote is needed to approve the recent shift to put greater weight on essays, recommendations and other life experiences while decreasing the importance of scores on standardized national college board tests like the ACT.

Williams said he’s unsure whether a vote would be required to officially change the admissions standards. President F. King Alexander said that aspect was being studied by the board and its lawyers.

It took a board vote in April 1985, after a raucous and occasionally angry debate, to institute the admissions standards, starting in 1988, to include minimum ACT scores and grade point averages. At the time LSU was rolling back what had been more than century of only requiring a high school diploma to enroll.

For the past 30 years, LSU’s admissions policy had been to reject, with a few narrow exceptions, any applicant who scored below 22 on the ACT regardless of any other academic achievements.

The scores on the ACT, the college board test most prominent among Southern institutions, range from about 15 to a perfect 36. The national average score is 21.0. In Louisiana it’s 19.6, according to the state Department of Education.

LSU’s new policy considers the ACT score but doesn’t automatically disqualify applicants who score too low. Instead, admissions counselors review essays, recommendations, grades, test scores and other information when deciding whether an applicant would succeed at LSU.

Williams, the first African American alum to serve as board chairman, refused reveal his thoughts about the policy. But he said, shortly after being sworn in by Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson, “LSU is a great agent of change in the world.”

A Metairie lawyer, Williams was a law clerk for Johnson and represented her in 2012 when the state attempted to block her ascension to chief justice.

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Board member Rémy Voisin Starns, of Metairie, wasn’t as circumspect.

“I support completely the concept of holistic admissions. I don’t see, in any way, that it is lowering standards,” he said.

Like many supporters of holistic admissions, Starns pointed out that the college board tests favor students coming from families that can afford tutors, classes, and books to practice for the standardized exams.

“Those type of preparations are outside the reach of many students,” Starns said.

Board member Ronald R. Anderson also publicly supported the new admissions policy.

The 49 members of LSU’s admissions staff began trying out some “holistic admissions” protocols in choosing the 5,803 freshmen who began classes two weeks ago. High school seniors preparing their applications now for admission in the fall 2019 will have to include essays, recommendations and other information. They still must take the ACT, which is being given Saturday.

Alexander has taken a lot of heat for the shift in admissions standards.

Richard Lipsey, a member of the Board of Regents, wrote in a letter to the editor published Friday’s Advocate stated: “After years of substandard performance, undue political influence, and inappropriate influence based on money and power the sound practices established by the Board of Regents and Board of Supervisors have paid great dividends ... He wants to change what has created this success just as LSU and all our institutions around the state are finally achieving some measure of economic stability.”

Alexander dismissed the criticisms.

“This is the largest freshmen class in the history of LSU. It is the most diverse class,” Alexander said.

The group also is among the highest achieving freshman class ever, Alexander said, scoring an average 25.5 on the ACT and having a 3.53 grade point average on a scale of 0 to 4.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.