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Prop. 209 Puts UC at Competitive Disadvantage, Say Officials

Prop. 209 Puts UC at Competitive Disadvantage, Say Officials
California educators looking for creative ways to improve diversity.
By Edwin Okong’o

Berkeley, Calif.
Barred by a California state law that prohibits the use of race in hiring and public college admissions, top University of California officials and scholars said recently that there is an urgent need to come up with creative ways to improve diversity.

Speaking at the “Equal Opportunity in Higher Education: Past and Future of Proposition 209” forum at UC-Berkeley late last month, educators said diversity was essential for the system to compete with private institutions and remain a top research university.

“We are being eaten alive by our private competitors,” said John B. Oakley, a law professor at UC-Davis and chair of its Academic Senate.

Approved by nearly 55 percent of California voters in 1996, Prop. 209 forbids the state, cities, counties and public educational institutions to “discriminate, or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in education, employment and contracting.

Oakley said because Prop. 209 only applies to publicly funded universities, private universities are free to engage in minority outreach practices to attract under-represented students and faculty.

Since the proposition passed, state-funded universities have been forced to discontinue minority outreach programs to avoid violating the law. As a result, progress has slowed in achieving diversity in public universities. For example, this fall UCLA admitted only 96 Black freshmen, the lowest in 30 years.

Oakley said that if UC fails to improve its ethnic makeup, it risks losing its spot as one of the most distinguished public universities in the country.

“I can, with great confidence, report unanimity among the assembly of the Academic Senate, the importance of diversity in making us the great university that we are, ” he  said.

UC-Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau said there was even more
at stake.

“My views are that 209 is profoundly wrong. It’s morally wrong,” he said, to a round of applause from the nearly 150 attendees at the forum.

However, correcting the wrong required political action, which the university cannot engage in, Birgeneau added.

UC system President Robert Dynes said officials have come to realize they have not done enough in the last 10 years to improve diversity. There were things, he said, the university might be able to do without breaking the law.

“There is a substantial gray area,” he said. “I want to venture into that gray area, but I don’t want to do anything irresponsible.”

According to Dynes, researchers were conducting a study to see if the admission eligibility criteria can be changed without “dilution of [the university’s] prestige.”

One criteria the university has already done away with is the SAT. Although the standardized test is widely viewed as a valid predictor of student success, Dynes said it was unfair.

“Sure, the goal is to be as precise as we can in predictability of success, and these are great predictors,” he said. “But we are not doing it correctly.”

Dynes said that UC would be more involved in improving the state’s K-12 education, an area it had stayed away from in the past. This would ensure that more students meet the system’s requirements. The university will also intensify its recruitment from community colleges, which he said tend to be more ethnically diverse and have students with high GPAs.

Journalists at the panel, however, questioned if UC was serious about improving diversity at its 10 institutions. They asked why, two years ago, the university raised the admission GPA from 2.8 to 3.0, a move that locked out many students.

UC-Irvine Chancellor France Cordova said the move was necessary to comply with a 1960 law known as the Master Plan for Higher Education. The law guarantees the state’s top 12.5 percent of high school graduates admission to the system.

“There is always a danger in trying to work to the numbers,” Cordova said.

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