Admissions Controversy Embroils Berkeley Again
Regents chairman questions low-scoring SAT admits, leaks report to newspaper
By Pamela BurdmanBERKELEY, Calif.
Just when it seemed that the University of California was finally moving beyond divisions over race in admissions, a new controversy has erupted at the Berkeley campus, garnering an onslaught of headlines around the state and a rebuke for Regents Chairman John J. Moores.
The turmoil erupted in early October just days after new UC President Dr. Robert Dynes took office, and spilled over into the November regents meeting. It began when a 159-page draft report about Berkeley admissions was leaked to the Los Angeles Times. The author of the critical report was surprising: Moores, an attorney, businessman and owner of the San Diego Padres.
In particular, Moores was suspicious that in 2002, Berkeley admitted 386 freshmen with SAT scores of 1000 or below, while turning down about 3,200 students with SATs above 1400. The low-scorers included 168 Latino students and 73 African Americans.
Moores’ public comments were blunt. “They don’t have any business going to Berkeley,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I think something is very screwy.”
UC officials sprang into action to defend the system, noting that Moores’ analysis stripped students’ grades and test scores of the context that the system’s new comprehensive review policy was designed to provide. Dynes assembled a study group to evaluate admissions practices around the system. Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl released a lengthy letter explaining the patterns noted by Moores. And in mid-November, UC Berkeley admissions officers staged a simulated scoring session to demonstrate how applicants are evaluated.
There were specific explanations. Of the high-SAT students who were rejected, for example, Berkeley officials noted that 98 percent fell into one or more of the following categories: they had withdrawn their applications, they hailed from outside California, they had applied to highly selective engineering majors, or they had below-average GPAs for Berkeley admits.
And there were general explanations reviewing the recent series of changes in UC admissions policies, such as de-emphasis on the SAT and adoption of a comprehensive review system that evaluates each student in the context of their home and school environment — considering whether students have special talent in music or sports, speak English as a second language, or are the first generation in their family to attend college.
But university leaders say the attacks could not have come at a worse time, or from a worse source — the regents’ chairman. The public broadsides over admissions could distract the university from its top agenda: maintaining funding and ensuring access. Already the legislature has declared that it won’t fund any growth in enrollment, despite the increasing number of high-school graduates expected next year. UC has had to turn away nearly 2,000 students for the winter and spring terms, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed to cut $33 million more from the current year’s budget, and an initial bite of $90 million for next year — which would completely gut the university’s K-12 outreach programs.
“With the crisis we have going on, I’m appalled Moores is making an issue of this,” Regent Odessa Johnson told a group of faculty who met last month to strategize about how to fulfill UC’s outreach mission.
“All the issues are important,” said former associate president Patrick Hayashi. “It’s disheartening that it’s being raised in such a nasty way.”
And in a private letter that was leaked to the press, Moores’ assault on Berkeley admissions drew unusually strong fire from the mild-mannered Berdahl. “The public release of a flawed report … has been damaging to students who are already enrolled in Berkeley and are doing well here,” he wrote. “You have attacked the small percentage of high-achieving freshman (5 percent) who have overcome substantial economic, social and educational disadvantages to come to Berkeley. They deserve more than derision from the Chair of the Board of Regents.”
At the regents meeting, Moores said he does care about students’ feelings, “especially the 3,200 kids who thought they’d done everything they need to be admitted to the University of California (at Berkeley) and found out they hadn’t.”
When several regents asked UC’s attorney to look into Moores’ use of the university seal and the UC name for copyright purposes, Moores called the criticisms “silly.”
In the absence of affirmative action, comprehensive review has been favored by Black and Latino advocates because it eschews strict emphasis on grades and test scores, which tended to put minority students at a disadvantage. But conservatives also seemed comfortable with the idea of each student being evaluated as an individual. Dynes has declared his intention to protect comprehensive review, which was adopted about five years ago at Berkeley for part of the class and came into use a year ago for the entire UC system.
The process, ironically, is the very approach that was sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Grutter v. Bollinger decision last June. Though Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that universities are allowed to consider race as part of a comprehensive review, UC stands alone as the only public institution in the nation to have voluntarily abandoned race as a factor — back in 1995 when the regents, led by Ward Connerly, voted to end the practice.
A look at UC’s admissions numbers reveals just how individualized the process is. Of the students with low SATs, for example, some had high grades, such as a Latino student with an 870 SAT and a GPA of 4.33 (the additional points reflect honors or advanced placement courses). Others, such as an African American student, had an 820 and a 2.94 GPA.
At the simulated application scoring session, admissions officials noted that a variety of factors can’t be captured by grades and test scores — including whether the student is the first in his/her family to attend college, comes from a low-income background, or works a significant number of hours. Nor do the numbers reveal the rigor of a student’s courseload, his/her commitment to community service or extracurricular activities, or whether he/she possesses special talent in music or sports.
In one application reviewed by admissions officials, a San Francisco student was recommended for admission despite earning a 910 on the SAT I. The student was a non-native English speaker, who had challenged herself with courses at a local community college and two AP tests and served as student body treasurer, in addition to working 27 hours a week at her family’s store. Officials gave her a score sufficient for admission to the campus, but not to one of the more competitive majors such as engineering.
Nevertheless, given the outside scrutiny from Moores and the state’s newspapers, a Berkeley faculty committee responsible for setting admissions criteria has announced plans to review the applications of all students scoring 1000 or below on the SAT who are slated to be admitted as freshmen.
Ward Connerly, who spearheaded the 1995 ban on affirmative action, first publicly suggested Berkeley may be violating the ban on preferences, but later said he will withhold judgment until the study is complete.
Some observers noted that enrollment reductions could disproportionately affect minority students. “More minorities can be hurt by the restricted enrollment and higher tuitions in states like California than by the affirmative action decision,” noted Patrick Callan of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. “But it doesn’t have the visceral galvanizing effect.”
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