University Of California Weighs Its Options In Challenging Affirmative Action Ban

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, October 28, 2006

Berkeley, Calif.—If the University of California challenges the state ban on affirmative action, the timing will need to be right, UC President Robert Dynes said Friday.

Speaking at a daylong conference on the effects and future of Proposition 209, Dynes and others said California’s demographics eventually will change enough to overturn the 1996 voter-approved ban.

“I surely want to win the first [lawsuit], because if we lose the first one, we will take two to three steps back,” Dynes said. “We should be pushing sensibly with a reasonable probability of our winning.”

Enrollment of black and Hispanic students dipped precipitously across the UC system after Prop. 209 took effect, especially at the most selective campuses, such as UC Berkeley and UCLA.

The numbers have slowly rebounded, but university leaders have pushed for more reforms.

At the Berkeley conference, educators and administrators said the admissions process in particular needs to change to prevent minority students from being affected unfairly by grade-point average and test-score requirements. The system’s nine undergraduate campuses admit the top 12.5 percent of high school seniors, based on grades, SAT scores and other factors.

Before Prop. 209, public universities also used race among admissions criteria.

“I think 209 is profoundly wrong, morally wrong,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, a frequent critic of the affirmative-action ban in the two years since he arrived in California.

“We can’t have a truly fair system until 209 is reversed,” he said to applause.

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A panel of influential educational scholars recommends an overhaul of the 40-year-old University of California eligibility process, urging a shift away from the current focus on grades and SAT scores to a broader review of students’ personal achievements, such as initiative and leadership.

The move, presented for the first time at a UC-Berkeley conference Friday, is seen as a way to expand economic, racial and geographic diversity in one of America’s premier public educational institutions. It could enable the UC system to admit more students, boosting the number of educated people in a state that is falling far behind others. But the program would require more state spending because campuses would have to be expanded for additional students.

It also could stiffen competition for slots at the most popular campuses for Santa Clara County high school students, whose strong academic credentials have traditionally assured them entry.

“We are discussing ways that would allow the campuses to take a look at a broader swath of students than they do now,’’ said UC-Davis Professor Mark Rashid, who heads the committee that creates recommendations for UC admissions policy and who contributed to the paper “California at the Crossroads,’’ which proposes the change.

UC officials have grown increasingly concerned about what they see as an unequal access to the system.

Other criteria

“GPA is one single measure of a student’s academic achievement. But there are many other things to look at,’’ Rashid said. “Doing things the way we do now does not necessarily result in admitting the students who do best at UC.’’

High school grade-point averages and SATs have been shown to correlate with only a minor part of a student’s ultimate success in college, according to the paper. But the emphasis causes teachers and students to “treat UC admissions as a high-stakes game, won by those who can play it best,’’ it said.

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Broader review

The recommendation would mean that students with a C+ (2.75 GPA) average, who were likely to be shut out under the old system, would now be eligible to have their applications reviewed—giving them the opportunity to list leadership positions, jobs or ways in which they have triumphed over adversity. Low SAT scores, while still considered, would not close the door.

However, acceptance to a specific campus—say, Berkeley or Los Angeles—would still require stellar performance in both academic and non-academic realms.

Signed into law by Gov. Pat Brown in 1960, California’s master plan of college eligibility has guaranteed a spot at UC for the top 12.5 percent of the state’s high school graduates, based on test scores and grades earned in UC-approved college prep courses.

But that approach has widened the “achievement gap’’ in the increasingly diverse state. Access to UC schools for many racial and ethnic minorities and for students at “disadvantaged high schools,’’ as defined by socioeconomics or geography, is consistently low.

The access problem was exacerbated in 1995 when UC regents voted to end race as a factor in admissions, then extended in 1996 with passage of the anti-affirmative-action Proposition 209.

Beginning with the 1998 entering class, there was a dip in the proportion of African-Americans, Latinos and American Indians on UC campuses.

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If the UC system is allowed to expand, increased access for some does not mean decreased access for others, said William Kidder of UC-Davis, another contributor to the paper.

“As a practical matter, if a student has a very high GPA and has taken a large number of honors classes and has very solid SATs, that student is still very likely to be admitted to a UC campus, although perhaps not the campus of first choice,’’ he said.

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Some critics say that research, not diversity, is the main purpose of UC, and there should not be a lowering of the academic standard for eligibility.

“I want to see increased diversity but I am in favor of getting there one step at a time—from the community colleges, to California State University, to UC—and not give someone a special privilege to attempt three steps in one,’’ said Lester Lee, who was the first Chinese-American member of the board of regents, where he served from 1993 to 1994.

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