UC Berkeley’s new chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, sounded the opening priority for his administration Thursday by issuing a call to action on a student diversity crisis at the highly ranked university.
“We’re not meeting our obligation as a public institution because we’re underserving in an extreme way a significant and increasingly important part of the population, which actually is going to be the majority population,” he said.
Birgeneau blamed the drop in numbers on Proposition 209, the 1996 voter-approved initiative that banned affirmative action based on race and gender for state and local agencies, including the university.
The number of African Americans in Cal’s 1996-97 freshman class, before Prop. 209 took effect, was 260, while the 2004-05 class has only 108, with fewer than 40 males, he said.
“Out of 3,600 freshman students, that’s just a shocking number,” he said.
Even more striking, he said, is that there is not even one African American among the approximately 800 entering students in engineering, whose faculty was ranked best in the world in a recent survey by The Times of London newspaper.
He said enrollment numbers for Latino and Native American students were similarly deplorable.
Former UC regent Ward Connerly, who headed the Prop. 209 campaign, sharply criticized Birgeneau in a recent newspaper column. Noting that the initiative won 55 percent to 45 percent, Connerly wrote, “In the private world, Birgeneau would either be fired or taken behind the woodshed for revealing such disregard for the people who pay the bills.”
Birgeneau said that the margin of victory for Prop. 209 was less than 10 percent and that the result would have been reversed if votes had been changed by five percentage points, which he termed a “quite small percentage of the population” given the voter turn-out for that election.
He said he had no intention of flaunting the law but said he wanted to explore whether more could be done under the current “comprehensive review” admissions process, which considers a variety of factors besides test scores.