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Chapter 25: Bakke vs. The Regents of the University of California
President Daniel Coit Gilman had said that the University of California was to be an institution "of the people and for the people" of this state. The civil rights movement of the 1960s had turned a powerful spotlight on the unequal access to education that curtailed the aspirations and opportunities of so many minority citizens. As the 1970s wore on, the state's changing demography vividly underscored the gap between the promise of Gilman's words and the reality of California society.
The University was overwhelmingly white, while California's minority population was growing by leaps and bounds: in 1977, 37 percent of the state's K-12 students were members of minority groups, a figure that was expected to rise to 56 percent by 1990.22 A 1974 legislative resolution expressed the legislature's intent that both UC and CSU encompass in their student bodies the ethnic and racial composition of the graduating classes in California's high schools. But since black and Hispanic students qualified for the University at far lower rates than whites and Asians did, it was clear that major new strategies would be required to enroll such students at anything approaching their proportion in the population.
The University had long been exploring ways to diversify its student body, beginning with its 1964 Educational Opportunity Program, aimed at low-income and minority students. During Saxon's administration, UC redoubled its efforts. Experience had demonstrated the importance of motivating students early in their schooling, so the Partnership Program he initiated concentrated on working with junior high schools throughout the state, eventually becoming the largest program of its kind in the country.
The need for diversity in graduate and professional programs was equally compelling. UC's campuses experimented with a variety of approaches to enrolling more minority students, among them admissions programs that sought to broaden the evaluation of student qualifications to include measures of likely success in a field or profession beyond the traditional criteria of grades and test scores. These experiments at the graduate and professional level were inevitably susceptible to controversy because of the intense competition for spaces. The UC Davis Medical School, for example, received 3,737 applications for 100 places in 1974, the year in which a white student named Allan Bakke applied and was turned down. Bakke sued. The Davis program set aside a certain number of spaces for qualified minority students, a practice that Bakke's attorneys argued was unfair and discriminatory. The University ultimately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, thus making the UC Davis Medical School admissions program a national test case for the use of race and ethnicity in the admissions process.
In a divided 1978 ruling, the Supreme Court held that the Davis medical school special admissions program was invalid under the Constitution because it reserved to minority applicants places for which white students could not compete, a denial, in the Court's view, of equal protection. But it also ruled that race and ethnicity can be considered, as one factor among others, in the admissions process. In effect, the Court said, the Davis program's goal of enrolling a diverse student body served "a substantial [State] interest" and was legally valid, but the means it employed were not.
President Saxon immediately announced that admissions programs throughout the University would be scrutinized and, if necessary, brought in line with the guidelines set down by Bakke. And he also announced that the University would continue vigorously to seek out qualified women and minority students within the scope laid down by the Supreme Court.
Bakke was not the definitive ruling on race-sensitive admissions many had hoped for. But it did establish, as a matter of law, the legitimacy of diversity as an educational goal and the right of universities to consider race and ethnicity in their pursuit of that goal. It was to be almost twenty years before this principle became once again a subject of public dispute—from within the University itself.
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The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Last updated 09/29/05.