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UC Regents Turn the Tables on Ward Connerly

UC Regents Turn the Tables on Ward Connerly
Regents oppose initiative to outlaw collection of racial data even as Connerly predicts victory at the ballot box
By Pamela Burdman


The University of California Board of Regents went on the offensive recently against fellow regent Ward Connerly, formally opposing his campaign to outlaw the collection of racial data.

In a 15-3 vote, with one abstention, the UC regents last month endorsed President Richard C. Atkinson’s resolution stating that the proposed law could “impede the University’s ability to conduct basic and policy-related research, to carry out its admissions and outreach programs, and otherwise carry out the university’s mission without restricting the freedom of scientific and scholarly inquiry” (see Black Issues, June 20, 2002).

It was only the 10th time in 25 years that the university had gone on record on a state ballot measure, a move propelled by the uniform sentiment of the 10 campus chancellors and the unanimous opposition of the systemwide faculty senate.

“This went through more review than anything I can recall in my 27 years as a faculty member,” says Dr. Gayle Binion, a political science professor from UC-Santa Barbara who chairs the systemwide Academic Council. “The faculty spent a year discussing this matter. We looked at it in one way and one way only: How does this affect the university? We felt compelled to speak on it. It’s a public policy that affects us very directly.”

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, an ex officio regent, agreed. “You can’t take the count out of accountability,” Bustamante says. “This initiative will hurt people and create tragedy in California.”

In embracing a position 10 months before voters will face the initiative, the UC regents turned the tables on Connerly, campaign chairman of the proposal known by supporters as the “racial privacy initiative,” by opponents as the “information ban,” and by state officials as the Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color, or National Origin (CRECNO) initiative.

Eight years ago, Connerly, a Black Republican from Sacramento and a close friend of then-Gov. Pete Wilson, championed the regents’ 1995 decision to dismantle affirmative action. In the aftermath, Connerly, then still a freshman regent, was accused of making the university a staging ground for the subsequent Proposition 209 campaign, as well as using the academy to pump up Wilson’s presidential prospects. Connerly’s actions left many UC faculty members and administrators seething quietly (and, in some cases, not so quietly) that their input had been disregarded and academic freedom trampled upon.

Eight years later, it was Connerly who was at pains to keep the initiative outside the halls of UC, disputing charges that the proposal would curb academic freedom and interfere with other university functions.

“One result of the university’s report to oppose this initiative is its illustration and documentation of the extent to which the university is involved in the collection, and use, of race data,” Connerly says. “One can only view with shock and awe the millions of dollars that could be allocated to faculty and staff salaries and to the prevention of fee increases instead of data collection and data manipulation, with little or no value added to our society.”

The measure would eliminate the racial checkboxes on government forms such as birth certificates, job applications, and college admissions and forbid the state from classifying students, employees or contractors by race. Exemptions include data gathered for medical research, law-enforcement purposes or to comply with federal requirements.

The initiative is scheduled to go before voters in March, though it could happen sooner if opponents of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis are successful in scheduling a recall vote at an earlier date.

To Connerly, who frequently cites his own mixed race heritage and marriage to a White woman as evidence that racial categories are outmoded, the proposition is the local conclusion of the state’s existing affirmative action ban.

Connerly believes that only ending racial categorizations will lead to a color-blind society where people aren’t seen through the lens of race. He cited the idea of “racial purity,” the “one-drop” rule and Thurgood Marshall’s 1954 statement that racial classifications are “odious” to bolster his case.

“When the government classifies and categorizes us, the clear message is sent that our society believes it to be just and wise to divide people by physical traits that we call ‘race,’ ” he says. “What might be called the racialist of today and the segregationist of the past share a common belief that the human family should be catalogued and subdivided.”

Despite the loss with the regents, he predicted a win at the ballot box.

But, in addition to a board of regents re-shaped by a Democratic governor, Connerly also faces a changed electorate — with 30 percent more voters of color than back in 1996 — and the overwhelming opposition of professors, even many who backed him on affirmative action.

“Most social scientists don’t want to see any situation where they’re not going to have access to social data,” says Dr. Denise Herd, a public health professor at UC-Berkeley, explaining the depth of faculty opinion. “It’s part of academic freedom.”

“One of the major issues that concerns me and other people in public health is that the country and state and local governments are deeply concerned about disparities in rates of health problems and social problems between ethnic and racial groups. Epidemiology is a cornerstone of public health. Without accessing this kind of data, we won’t be able to track the disparities to develop the kind of interventions that are needed to eliminate them. We would have no idea what’s going on,” Herd says.

Using similar reasoning, the California Medical Association recently opposed the initiative 124-3.

But at the regents’ meeting, Connerly called the public health concern a “red herring,” noting that the exemption for medical research subjects was intended to cover such matters. He expressed frustration that the university wouldn’t accept his assurances of that, but university lawyers said they couldn’t be certain how a court would rule on the matter, and public health and medical experts are convinced that the exemption would be quite narrow.

Dr. Michael V. Drake, vice president for health affairs for the UC System, noted a research study he conducted as a faculty member at UC-San Francisco. Not “medical research” per se, the study was analyzing health care delivery, and because race was part of the data set they used, the researchers discovered, to their surprise, a strong correlation between physicians’ race and the community they serve.

Besides such specific questions, much of the debate hinged on the broader issue of whether it was proper for the university to take any position on the matter at all. Regent Peter Preuss, who hails from Germany and has long stated his opposition to racial categories because of their hateful use by the Nazis, said the university had no more right to take a position on racial research than on other controversial areas such as fetal research or stem cell research.

Another regent, George Marcus of Palo Alto, argued vociferously against taking a vote. “The regents are not a debating society,” he says. “We’re not here to promote private agendas.” But when his attempt to table the question was voted down, he sided with the majority to oppose the race measure.

Also voting with the majority were Bustamante and two recently elected state officials making their first appearances at the board, Speaker of the Assembly Herb J. Wesson Jr. and State Superintendent of Schools Jack O’Connell. But, after the resolution passed in committee, all three Democrats exited to speak with the media, so their three votes were not included in the 15-3 total when the full board affirmed the committee’s recommendation.

Notably, Gov. Gray Davis, who as lieutenant governor, made a habit of garnering media mentions by attending regents’ meetings, and whose appointees were largely responsible for the lop-sided anti-initiative vote, did not attend the meeting and has not stated a position on the ballot measure.

Last month’s decision was far less divided than the 1995 vote over race-conscious admissions, when the regents were split 14-10. That decision led to a slew of changes in the university’s admissions and outreach policies.

The top 4-percent plan has incrementally increased admission of Black and Latino students. But in another session of last month’s meetings, the university presented an outside report stating that the outreach programs that were expanded when the race-blind policies were instituted, still aren’t reaching enough Black, Latino and American Indian high-school students.

Perhaps out of respect for Connerly as a member of the board, the discussion was conducted with utmost decorum — the only interruptions being the finger snapping of some 75 students who opposed the initiative. UC officials were muted in their criticisms of the proposal — and none made themselves available for interviews following the meeting. Atkinson, who sponsored the recommendation to oppose the initiative, didn’t speak once about the matter during the meeting.

But as the intensity of the debate illustrated, controversies around race continue to reverberate in the halls of a university once known for its diversity.

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