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Chapter 33: The Debate over Admissions
As early as 1987, President David Gardner warned that the legislature's 1974 resolution urging UC to achieve a student body that approximated the demography of California was on a collision course with the University's admissions policies as defined by the Master Plan.
Under the Master Plan, UC was to limit the students it admitted to the top 12.5 percent of California high school graduates statewide. Under the legislative resolution, UC's student body was to approximate the racial and ethnic makeup of California high school graduates statewide. The problem was that the different groups making up the 12.5 percent pool qualified for the University at very different rates. In the late 1980s, Asian students qualified for UC at a rate of about 26 percent, whites at 15 percent; Hispanics at around 5 percent, and blacks at 3.6 percent. UC's affirmative action programs had been established to address these disparities in eligibility that made some groups "underrepresented" in the University. California was now the most diverse state in the nation, a reality that lent added urgency to bringing more underrepresented students into higher education.
As Gardner explained to the Regents at their November 1987 meeting, the combination of growing numbers of UC applicants and wide gaps in eligibility meant that competing social and educational values had somehow to be reconciled. If UC's admissions policies favored students with the highest grades and test scores, the overwhelming majority selected would be white or Asian; if it continued to supplement grades and test scores with consideration of qualifications such as special talents or breadth of extracurricular activities, more underrepresented students, but fewer whites and Asians, would be selected. The University's mandated admissions pool of the top one-eighth of California high school graduates constituted a zero-sum game: whenever the representation of one racial or ethnic group went up, the representation of another inevitably went down.
The University, like colleges and universities nationwide, sought to strike a balance in its policies to assemble an entering class that included not just students with straight-A records, not just students who brought racial and ethnic diversity, but also students who reflected a variety of incomes and interests, as well as geographical diversity. Further, all eligible California students were guaranteed a place at the University, though not necessarily on their campus of first choice. But as long as demand for a UC education continued to be strong, especially demand for campuses—such as Berkeley and UCLA—that did not have room for every student who wanted to attend, the University's admissions policies would remain a target.
"I can't think of any policy issue either more sensitive, more politically complicated, more socially difficult to deal with," Gardner concluded, "[or] issues . . . more important in the long run to the University of California and, in fact, to relationships among and between the citizens of our state."24
It was a prescient remark. By the mid-1990s, the thirty-year social consensus supporting affirmative action in university admissions was beginning to fray. In 1993 and 1994, Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Cook of San Diego protested to a number of UC Regents and officials that their son, James, had been passed over for admission to UC San Diego's medical school while minority students with lower grades and test scores were admitted. (James Cook was accepted at UC Davis's medical school, which twenty years earlier had precipitated the Bakke case by denying admission to white applicant Allan Bakke.) The Cooks' charges led some Regents to call on the Board to abolish affirmative action; the President responded with a decision to present to the Regents a review of the University's affirmative action policies in admissions and employment. Ward Connerly, one of the Regents who requested this review, was explicit about his reservations regarding affirmative action and his intention to call for a vote on the issue at the Board's June 1995 meeting.
The stage was set for what became a prolonged and polarizing debate on the merits of affirmative action. As had been the case with divestment a decade earlier, the question before the Board was a controversial national and political issue. Like that earlier debate, this one included charges of political interference on the part of the state's Governor. Governor Wilson was running for President, and ending affirmative action was the centerpiece of his campaign.
Unlike divestment, however, this debate went straight to the heart of the University of California's role as a public university. Were its admissions policies fundamentally fair? In distributing educational opportunity, what were its responsibilities to students and to society in a state undergoing pro- found demographic change?
The administration's defense of its affirmative action programs, marshaled in a series of presentations to the Board from January to June 1995, persuaded some Regents of the soundness of UC's policies. But it aroused skepticism in others, who were inclined to doubt the reliability of some of the information the administration provided and regarded the President's pleas for more time to study the issue as a strategy for delay. As the months passed and it became clear that Regent Connerly would make good on his promise to bring the matter to a vote, various UC constituencies—among them the President, the Chancellors, and the Academic Senate—went on record supporting affirmative action as vital to the University's mission.
In July 1995, at a long and media-blitzed meeting interrupted by a bomb threat, the Regents voted to end consideration of race, gender, and ethnicity in admissions and employment and purchasing at the University of California. Governor Wilson led the fight on behalf of Regent Connerly's two resolutions—SP-1, on admissions, and SP-2, on employment and purchasing. During the course of the meeting the Regents heard from a long list of advocates, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson—also a U.S. presidential candidate—former speaker of the California Assembly Willie Brown, and one of their own number, Regent Roy Brophy, who left the Regents' table to speak as a private citizen and in that capacity warn his colleagues about the dangers attendant on passage of SP-1 and SP-2. President Peltason argued, to no avail, that the Board should at least postpone action until the following year. At that time a ballot initiative, Proposition 209, would allow the state's citizens to decide whether affirmative action should be abolished throughout all state agencies.
When the final vote came, it was a close one. SP-1 was approved by a margin of 14 to 10, with one abstention; SP-2, by 15 to 10.
Passage of SP-1 committed UC to the task of enrolling more minority students on its campuses without considering either race or ethnicity in selecting them. Virtually overnight, the University of California—which had been one of the first in the nation to establish affirmative action programs and had argued the Bakke case up to the Supreme Court—found itself a leader among American universities in dismantling race-attentive admissions.
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The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Last updated 09/29/05.