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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

By Sylvia Tiersten
Photography courtesy of Cross Cultural Center

Ten years ago, Proposition 209 ended racial and ethnic preferences in California’s public education system. The measure did not end contentious debates about diversity, fairness and the public university’s role in righting civil inequities. The uneasy conversation continues

—punctuated by changing demographics and a growing concern that there are no easy answers.


When it comes to recruiting and retaining underserved minorities, “There is no single silver bullet,” says Robert C. Dynes, president of the University of California system and former chancellor of UCSD. “One program might fit African Americans, but it won’t necessarily fit Native Americans or Filipinos. With UC under a microscope as far as eligibility and admissions, we cannot target students on the basis of race or culture, and that’s a handicap.”

With or without Prop 209, Dynes acknowledges, there is no quick fix. Consider UC’s California Teach—One Thousand Teachers, One Million Minds initiative. Launched in 2005, the program aims to train a thousand new science and math teachers annually for California high schools through the year 2010.

“We will nurture these graduates and put them into the schools where they are most needed,” Dynes explains, so that science and math teachers are as proficient in economically disadvantaged southeast San Diego as they are in affluent La Jolla. For UCSD, the long-term payoff might be a more diverse pool of freshman applicants with a taste and an aptitude for math and science. “We won’t come up to speed with this program till 2010,” says Dynes, and that’s not counting the years needed to assess its effectiveness.

* * *

“Make no mistake, we would not be here today as basically an integrated society if we had not embarked on affirmative action in 1965,” University of California Regent Ward Connerly told his fellow board members (as reported in The San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 2005). “I don’t want to end affirmative action, but I want us as a university to rethink what we’re doing.”

It was 1995, and California Governor Pete Wilson was calling for an end to race and gender-based hiring. Connerly, an African-American businessman and Wilson appointee, argued that preferential admissions policies for minority students were unfair and socially divisive.

Race-based affirmative action was supposed to be a stopgap measure, Connerly told the board. The ultimate goal was a colorblind, not a color-conscious society. “When I campaigned to end preferences in California, even my harshest critics said the idea is right, but the time isn’t . . . We’re just not there yet,” he recalls.

The Regents supported Connerly’s timetable—voting 14-10 to eliminate race, ethnicity and gender-based preferences at UC’s nine campuses. In 1996, Proposition 209 clinched the deal.

Connerly chaired the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) or Prop 209 campaign. The ballot measure, which garnered 54 percent of the vote, extended the ban to all public education, public employment and public contracting in California.

What followed was a precipitous drop in freshman enrollment of African Americans and Latinos at every UC campus. In 1997, the swan song year for preferences, UCSD accepted 55 percent of its African-American and 65 percent of its Mexican-American applicants. Two years later, acceptance rates for these groups had plunged by more than half.

Minority applications also took a dive. The impact of the race-neutral law was swift and chilling, recalls Associate Professor Jorge Mariscal, director of UCSD’s Chicano/Latino Arts and Humanities Program, who was a member of the admissions committee at that time.

“Prop 209 sent a message to underrepresented communities that said we’re not interested in pursuing you as students in the UC system,” he says. Applications among African Americans applying to attend UCSD in fall 1997 fell 7.4 percent in one year, while Latino applicants were down 5.9 percent.

For Connerly, the results were hardly unexpected. “If you’ve been giving extra points to people and then you take those advantages away, there are going to be consequences,” he allows. But as a cure, he reckons, race-based affirmative action is worse than the disease it purports to treat.

“Preferential admissions made UC’s top institutions look good, so they could pound their chests and say look how diverse we are, but many of these kids weren’t up to competing at these campuses,” says Connerly. “They were getting washed out at twice the rate of their more qualified peers.” Discouraged and disillusioned, some gave up on education altogether.

Joseph W. Watson sees it differently. “Instead of calling for minor adjustments or new predictive tools, they used a sledgehammer to solve the undergraduate admissions problem,” says the UCSD vice chancellor for student affairs. “The unfortunate impact was to slow down the rate of progress in increasing underrepresented students at UCSD.” UC’s underrepresented minorities are Latino, African-American and Native-American students.

Undergraduate enrollment by ethnicity.

Prior to 209, UCSD admitted 60 percent of its applicants strictly on the basis of high school grades and SAT scores. Another 30 percent benefited from a point system that considered criteria such as leadership, special talents and community service. The remaining 10 percent gained extra points if they were Latino, Native American or African American. For that last category, the University used a metric to predict a candidate’s academic staying power. The expectation was a UCSD grade point average of 2.8 or better.

The 833 Asian-American students who entered as freshmen in 1994 had an 89 percent retention rate after two years. The rate was 83 percent for 69 African-American students, 82 percent for 56 Latinos, 80 percent for 1,140 Caucasians, 77 percent for 288 Mexican-Americans and 77 percent for 35 Native Americans.

* * *

UCSD doesn’t look like California, and the gap is getting wider. Latinos will outnumber whites in the state in less than a decade, if census bureau projections are on target. Currently 35 percent of the state’s population, they represented only 11 percent of UCSD undergraduates in the 2005 fall quarter.

African-American UCSD undergrads are stuck at 1 percent since 2000, and yet in the state as a whole they are 6 percent of the demographic pie.

It’s a different story for Asian Americans, whose enrollment has soared since color-blind policies kicked in. Though only 12 percent of California’s population, they are 37 percent of UCSD undergraduates—and outnumber whites by 5 percent.

Must a public university reflect the changing nature of its regional population, or do other priorities trump that goal? Watson believes that “In a democratic society, you cannot have 40 percent or more of your population who are not represented at your public institutions. It’s an unsustainable situation.”

Inevitably, the next generation of California’s leaders will be more Latino than the present one. Mindful of the voting, budget and legislative implications, Dynes warns: “We, the University of California, had better be preparing those future leaders. If we don’t, the next generation won’t see the need for this wonderful research institution.”

While 209 limits academia’s ability to tweak the admissions
system, it doesn’t stop elected officials from reading the demographic tea leaves. “People in underserved communities might start asking questions such as: ‘Why aren’t our children getting into the best schools in the state?’ or ‘Why are these schools perceived as so hostile, that our children don’t want to go there?’” says Mariscal.

It troubles Watson that “those who advocated eliminating preferences walked away from the problem. They did not come back to remove the disparities. They said they would focus more on financial aid and outreach, but those programs have been cut. Nor have they emphasized making public schools more effective.”

* * *

Richard C. Atkinson inherited the affirmative action fracas in August 1995. As incoming UC president, he struggled to maintain diversity and reshape admissions policies without running afoul of the Regents’ ban on preferences.

To a large extent he felt his hands were tied. “Race-neutral admissions policies drastically and demonstrably limit the ability of elite universities to reflect the diversity of a multicultural state in any meaningful way,” Atkinson says. “Compromise is impossible, since each side of the debate claims the moral high ground.”

Mae Brown, for instance, UCSD’s assistant vice chancellor of admissions and enrollment services, argues that “as a taxpayer-supported institution, a UC campus should reflect the people of California. It becomes extremely problematic when it doesn’t.”

On the opposite side of the debate is Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) in Sterling, Va., a think tank that opposes racial and ethnic preferences and bilingual education. Wrongheaded affirmative action policies stigmatize African-American and Latino students, who “walk around campus with an asterisk over their head,” says Clegg. “There’s no way that an outside observer can tell whether a particular student got in because of race or merit. There will be a widespread assumption by the student’s classmates, professors and future employers that he is or she is probably not quite as good as white and Asian kids.”

Connerly blames racial preferences for fostering a culture of dependency. “Affirmative action was the kissing cousin of welfare, a seemingly humane social gesture that was actually quite diabolical in its consequences—not only causing racial conflict because of its inequities, but also validating blacks’ fears of inferiority and reinforcing racial stereotypes,” he wrote in his book, Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences. The American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), which he founded in 1997, continues to campaign for race-neutral legislation in other states and at the federal level.

* * *

If opponents and proponents of 209 agree on anything, it is that race-based preferences did not resolve the tenacious problems posed by poverty, social injustice and a public education system that is failing many families. “UC’s affirmative action program didn’t address the real issue of historical underachievement of black and brown poor children,” says Cecil Lytle, UCSD music professor emeritus and chairman of the Preuss School. “If you really want to compensate for five or six generations of poverty and discrimination, you need to start at the K-12 level.”

On the one hand, he saw Prop 209 as a cynical political maneuver by conservatives who wanted to “choke government to death.” On the other hand, he saw 209 as an opportunity: a rationale for launching a model school on the UC campus.

The Preuss School opened in 1999 as a charter school in the San Diego Unified School District. Preuss provides a college preparatory curriculum for over 700 sixth-to-twelfth-grade students whose low-income parents are not college graduates. This past June, 91 percent of the school’s graduating seniors were accepted at four-year colleges or universities. (For more on Lytle’s discussion of the Preuss school see his interview in the May 2005 issue of @UCSD magazine at ucsdmag.ucsd.edu/magazine.)

“I don’t think we would have undertaken the Preuss initiative without 209,” says Watson. “K-12 education wasn’t our expertise.” By serving as a feeder school for college and a model for educating the disadvantaged, “Preuss allowed us, despite 209 restrictions, to have an impact.”

In September 2005, Gompers Charter Middle School opened in southeast San Diego, replacing a chronically underperforming district school. Gompers is partnering with UCSD, which busses college students to the school to serve as tutors.

“By focusing laser-like on three or four schools, we can make a difference,” says Lytle, who sees the model school project as an extension of UC’s historic mission. He cites the fact that, for decades, the University has offered educational programs and science-based research to the state’s farmers nd other agricultural professionals.

"As a land grant university system, we fixed the grape at Berkeley and UC Riverside,” says Lytle. “Now we have to fix public education. We can create the basic research and provide the models for what works and what doesn’t.”



Prop 209

Brown v. Board of Education

Argument in Favor of Proposition 209

Argument Against Proposition 209

“In trying to benefit underrepresented minorities, we ignored the growing resentment of whites who thought it was wrong. You need a single standard for everybody.”

— Ward Connerly, Sacramento businessman, founder and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), and former University of California regent