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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2


PASSIONATE PLEA: In mid-October 1996, a few weeks before the vote on Proposition 209, these students marched to an event in Revelle Plaza titled, “Mobilize against the Lies.” In an emotional speech, Jesse Jackson addressed the large crowd that spilled out beyond the plaza, declaring “We need a state that is color-caring not color blind.”

The 1995 Regents’ mandate, which abolished preferences, directed UC to achieve diversity “through the preparation and empowerment of all students in this state to succeed rather than through a system of artificial preferences.” UC faculty and staff overhauled the old undergraduate admissions structure to comply with the new realities, leaving some flexibility for individual campuses to work out the details.

In 1999, the Regents approved the Eligibility in the Local Context, or 4-percent plan. ELC grants UC admission to the top 4 percent of graduating students in each California public high school—providing they have successfully completed the core curriculum specified by the University. Prior to ELC, students at disadvantaged schools were failing to enroll in these qualifying courses for entrance and scholarships at UC. “These kids would have been eligible all along if they had taken the appropriate subjects, but no one was counseling them in that regard,” says Atkinson.

Comprehensive Review, a 2001 innovation, substituted a more holistic admissions policy for one that was strictly based on grades and test scores. UCSD devised 12 criteria—half of which are nonacademic.

“If you had to take care of your mentally disabled brother, you might get points for overcoming a personal challenge,” explains Akos Rona-Tas, associate professor of sociology, who chairs the Academic Senate Committee on Admissions. Socioeconomic factors such as coming from a low-income family or an underperforming high school are also factored in. (For more on these criteria, see “Demystifying Admissions” in the May 2004 issue of @UCSD magazine.

San Diego Padres owner and UC Regent John Moores is highly critical of comprehensive review for its consideration of nonacademic factors. To him, grades and test scores are the only criteria that ought to matter. “I don’t give a damn whether the freshman class is all Asian, if it’s all white, if it’s all black, or if it’s all brown,” he told a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter in January 2006.

Moores’ argument is a familiar one to Rona-Tas, who has heard it many times. “It flounders on the fact that past performance is not necessarily the best predictor of someone’s future performance as a college student,” he says. That’s particularly true when conditions such as poverty and racial discrimination come into play. “We need a better way to identify underprivileged but talented kids,” he reckons.
Since 1997, UC has partnered with community college officials to encourage third-year transfers by qualified students—many of them from economically disadvantaged communities. With the passage of 209, UC reoriented its outreach efforts from race and ethnicity to low-performing high schools where student academic performance ranked in the bottom 20 percent of California high schools. And these are the schools where African-American, Latino and Native-American students are disproportionately represented.
Despite these efforts, “We don’t have a viable pipeline for underrepresented groups,” says Brown, UCSD’s assistant vice chancellor of admissions. “We had a strong commitment to outreach programs, which we saw as a catalyst for increasing this pipeline.”

However, hopes dimmed when the state slashed outreach dollars in 2004 to ease its budget crunch. While some of the money has been restored, “We continue to struggle with increasing the applicant pool minus the support of outreach programs that could have made a difference,” says Brown.

* * *

Creating critical mass is a chicken-and-egg phenomenon. Campus wide, UCSD has 18 faculty of color—and 209 bans quotas and race-based hiring. A more diverse faculty might attract a more diverse student body and vice versa, points out Dean of Social Sciences Paul Drake.

When former Associated Students President Chris Sweeten, ’06, entered UCSD in 2002, “I was the only black male in my dorm and one of five at Sixth College,” he recalls. He is currently heading up a student recruitment commission “to try to give people of color encouragement to come here.”
It’s a tough sell job, Sweeten concedes. “Students don’t see students who reflect upon them—and that’s a problem.” Of the 313 African Americans who qualified for acceptance in fall 2005, only 43 chose to attend. Aware of this, the University introduced a new, black-studies minor this year. The program is offered under the auspices of Thurgood Marshall College and directed by Provost Robert Kluender, a linguistics professor.

Within a qualified applicant pool that is small to begin with, “UCSD competes with Stanford, Harvard and Yale for every superstar,” says Jorge Huerta, professor of theatre, associate chancellor and chief diversity officer.

As a stellar research university, UC shares Harvard’s mission to educate people and create new knowledge. As a public institution, “We have a third commitment—to serve all of society,” says Dynes. “The privates don’t have that obligation.”

Should UC’s most prestigious campuses look like California? Absolutely, Dynes believes. “Until somebody convinces me that God didn’t give all races intelligence—and I’ve seen no evidence for that—the lack of diversity means we must be missing out on some intelligent kids who lack opportunity.”
Maybe it’s time to revisit California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. Created in 1960, it promises access, quality and affordability to any state resident in the top 12.5 percent of the statewide high school graduating class. Only 15 percent of high school grades attended college back then, compared with more than 50 percent today. Atkinson, for one, favors a modest increase in the 12.5 percentage.

Meanwhile, Supreme Court battles loom that could bar color and ethnic-based preferences even at America’s top private universities. National opinion polls suggest that policies based on economic hardship rather than color or place-of-origin might go down more easily with voters. A 2003 Los Angeles Times poll, for instance, had 59 percent of Americans supporting economic affirmative action and only 26 percent favoring racial preferences.

In the end, it’s a question of enlightened self-interest, reckons Lytle. Diversity that doesn’t sacrifice academic excellence beats “living in two or three Americas,” he says. “We need to be selfish—but selfish in a civic way. As a parent, I’m concerned about the quality of thought of the kid who’s driving on the freeway next to my daughter.”

Sylvia Tiersten is a freelance writer based in San Diego.


Prop 209

Brown v. Board of Education

Argument in Favor of Proposition 209

Argument Against Proposition 209

"I worry about what will happen to the University of California downstream if the Mexican-American and other minority populations in the state feel that the University is not serving their needs."
— Richard C. Atkinson, University of California president emeritus and former UCSD chancellor