UCLA To Blacks: You’re Welcome

Rebecca Trounson, LA Times, Nov. 11, 2006

The parents and students at View Park Preparatory High School in the Crenshaw district had some tough questions for the visiting UCLA chancellor.

Would more African American students be admitted to UCLA for the next school year? Or would the much-publicized changes in the school’s admissions process just not amount to much?

The Westwood campus is racing to revamp its admissions procedures in time for the students who are applying this month for next fall’s freshman class. And as it does, it is walking a fine line: how to encourage black students to apply without raising unrealistic expectations—and without alienating other applicants.

UCLA’s admissions overhaul, announced just two months ago, comes at a time of heightened angst and renewed attention nationwide to the polarizing issues of race and college admissions. In Michigan, voters in Tuesday’s election overwhelmingly approved a ban on affirmative action in universities and other public institutions, a measure closely modeled on California’s decade-old Proposition 209. Students in California, meanwhile, marked the proposition’s Nov. 5 anniversary with rallies and speeches urging voters to repeal it.

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Was it true, a woman asked, that UCLA had satellite admissions offices in Asia? And no disrespect, another said, but could Norman Abrams, the interim chancellor, assure them that his successor would share his commitment to boosting the declining numbers of African American students on campus?

Abrams, who had waited at the back of the charter school’s crowded community room for nearly two hours Wednesday evening before his turn to speak, answered the questions slowly, carefully and occasionally with humor.

He said he hoped the numbers of black students admitted—and enrolled—at UCLA would rise under the new system but could not predict by how much. He said the campus did not have admissions offices in Asia. And he said he was certain that UCLA’s next permanent chancellor would share his priorities.

Abrams said he had come to the parents’ meeting at View Park, a school with a largely black student body, to underline that point. “I wanted you to understand that UCLA, at the highest levels of its administration, is committed to increasing our African American admissions,” said Abrams, a longtime UCLA law professor who became acting chancellor July 1. The words “We Want You at UCLA” shone on a screen behind him.

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Officials said the new process will be fairer for all applicants, but it also came in the wake of campus and community concern over data, released in June, showing that only about 100 African Americans—or 2% of the freshman class—would enroll at UCLA for the current academic year. It was the lowest level in more than three decades.

Some African American groups and activists, in an effort to pressure UCLA, are encouraging more black students to apply to the school. But others are evidently skeptical. Abrams recently wrote to more than 100 Los Angeles-area high school counselors after reports that at least a few counselors were urging their black students not to apply to UCLA this year, apparently telling them the campus was not interested in them.

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Abrams and other UCLA officials are trying to balance competing pressures and realities as the admissions changes move forward. They emphasized that they would continue to abide by the restrictions of Proposition 209, but also planned to do everything they could legally to increase the enrollment numbers.

They said, however, that they also worry about how to keep from raising expectations in the community and among students that cannot be met, at least at first. And how can the university hold onto the support of community activists who are encouraged by the talk of admissions change but impatient for results?

“It’s a real dilemma,” Abrams said after the meeting. “We’re trying to do everything we can … and to give honest answers to all the questions. It is such a difficult problem, but we really want to encourage people to apply, especially students who are in range of us, in terms of their academic numbers and experience.”

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Abrams tried to address such skepticism in his letter to the high school counselors. He appealed to them to encourage students to apply. “It would be a tragedy if counselors at any schools were to advise their best students not to apply to UCLA because they believe that it is not welcoming to any ethnic and racial groups,” he wrote.

Kathy Dominguez, View Park’s director of college counseling and financial aid, said she has not been among those directing students away from UCLA. Instead, she said, she has told the students, members of View Park’s first graduating class, to apply to UCLA as well as other schools. “Not more, not less,” she said.

“The strategy I’ve opted for regarding UCLA is to make it clear to my students that whether they get in or not may not have anything to do with them,” Dominguez said. “I’ve told them that at times college admissions doesn’t really have anything to do with fairness.”

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