Civil Rights Groups, Berkeley Settle Lawsuit Over Admissions Policy
By Pamela Burdman
While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision giving a green light to race-conscious admissions was grabbing headlines, another challenge over race and admissions was quietly coming to closure. Civil rights groups settled with the University of California at Berkeley in a 4-year-old lawsuit charging that the university’s admissions procedures were unfairly disadvantaging minority applicants.
In the lawsuit, top minority students who had been denied seats at UC-Berkeley complained in particular about the extra weight the campus was giving for advanced placement courses, noting that most schools with high-minority populations offered very few of those rigorous courses. Berkeley officials disputed the charges, saying that because they were evaluating students according to the educational opportunities available to them, students whose schools didn’t offer AP courses would not be penalized for not taking them.
Since the lawsuit was filed in 1999, Berkeley has modified its admissions process, and the UC system has adopted a comprehensive review policy. That policy moves the campus further away from numerical formulas, and, according to the civil rights lawyers, closer to regaining the diversity it lost after a regents’ vote and a ballot initiative forced the system to begin using color-blind admissions procedures back in 1998.
“They’re moving in the right direction,” says Kimberly West-Faulcon, western regional director for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Despite the Supreme Court’s recent decision allowing limited consideration of race in admissions, California’s anti-preferences Proposition 209 remains in effect here. Given those constraints, the lawyers determined that the campus may be doing its very best to achieve diversity.
UC officials were pleased with the settlement but continued to defend the earlier process. “We don’t agree that there was anything unlawful about the way in which the process worked,” says UC attorney Christopher Patti. The systemwide shift to comprehensive review was unrelated to the lawsuit. “It was in response to the university’s desire to have a more holistic and rounded admissions process,” he says.
In 1998, the first freshman class admitted after the regents adopted the color-blind rules and the state’s voters passed Proposition 209 plummeted in diversity: The proportion of underrepresented minorities dropped from 23 percent of students admitted in 1997 to just 10 percent of those admitted in 1998. For the coming fall, underrepresented minorities make up about 16 percent of admitted students, still well below pre-1998 levels.
Perhaps ironically, Berkeley, the first UC campus to adopt the comprehensive review process, is now becoming a model for how universities nationwide can follow the Supreme Court’s ruling. But only UC schools — and those in Washington and Florida, the other states to end affirmative action voluntarily — will leave race out of the equation.
“It’s not as complete a review as the rest of the country is going to be able to use,” West-Faulcon says.
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