Retiring UC President Criticizes Dropping Affirmative Action
University of California President Richard C. Atkinson is leaving his post the same way he came in, firmly opposed to banning race and gender from the admissions process.
“I continue to believe those were the wrong decisions,” Atkinson said last month in a written farewell presented to the UC Board of Regents.
Atkinson was chancellor of UC San Diego in July 1995, when regents voted to stop considering race or gender in admissions. He was picked as president in August of that year after an earlier search attempt ended in embarrassment when the selected candidate abruptly backed out.
Months into the job, Atkinson hit a rough spot when he announced that the admission changes would be delayed a year.
Atkinson along with the system’s eight other chancellors supported considering race in admissions on the grounds it helps address inequities in the public school system. He tried to assure regents that the delay, from fall 1997 to fall 1998, was for practical, not political reasons. But he came close to getting fired before defusing the row by apologizing and coming up with a compromise — the changes would apply to graduate students in fall 1997 and to undergraduates in spring 1998.
Since undergraduates make up the bulk of admissions and most apply for fall, Atkinson had effectively gotten his way, showing a quiet but persistent leadership that would be a hallmark of his tenure as president.
“He is one of the great men of higher education,” Regent John Moores, chairman of board, said last month.
Atkinson oversaw several changes to UC admissions, including a program of admitting the top 4 percent of students at every high school, designed to help good students at bad schools, and taking socio-economic factors into account, such as whether an applicant overcame poverty.
In May 2001, by which time the political makeup of the board had changed, regents rescinded the 1995 vote. However, Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative organized by UC Regent Ward Connerly that forbids considering race or gender in public hiring, contracting or education, remains law.
In his farewell, Atkinson noted that although UC diversity has increased from the sharp drop that followed the end of the old admissions system, the number of Hispanic and Black students at the top campuses remains below the old levels and the gap is widening between the diversity of the UC freshman class and that of the state’s high school graduates.
Nationally, Atkinson’s biggest legacy may be his challenge to the SAT and ACT college entry exams. In early 2001, he asked UC faculty to considering dropping the SAT, saying it was taking up too much of students’ time and money and noting that it had been criticized as unfair to minorities. Officials at the College Board, which owns the SAT, agreed to revisions. The changes, to take effect in 2005, include adding an essay, dropping the analogy questions and making the math more advanced. The ACT also added an essay.
Atkinson hands over to incoming President Robert C. Dynes. UC has seen its budget cut by nearly half a billion so far and is anticipating more cuts next year. Atkinson, 74, whose last day was Oct. 1, has said he is retiring to see more of his grandchildren.
— Associated Press
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