In Symbolic Gesture, UC Regents Repeal Ban On Affirmative Action
By Pamela Burdman
In a unanimous vote, the University of California regents have repealed their ban on affirmative action, hoping to send a welcoming message to Black and Latino students — and bid farewell to six years of protests and political infighting.
Sealed in backroom agreements under pressure from legislators on the eve of the vote, the decision by 22 regents is more about symbols than substance. Because Proposition 209, approved by California voters in 1996, continues to prohibit race-conscious policies statewide, the move doesn’t change the university’s procedures for admissions, hiring and contracting.
Nevertheless, more than 150 student protesters from around the UC system who came to San Francisco for the May 16 vote shouted with delight when the decision came. It was also a day of hugs, back-slapping and tears for the many state and university officials who never felt comfortable with the university’s acceptance of race-neutral admissions, hiring and contracting via resolutions SP-1 and SP-2.
“This sends an incredibly important message to the children of California,” says regent Judith Hopkinson, who sponsored the resolution. “We are an open and welcoming university.”
In crafting the resolution, Hopkinson consulted closely with Ward Connerly, the chief architect of SP-1 and SP-2 in 1995. Despite his continued belief in race-neutral policies and despite some 11th-hour changes that he did not favor, Connerly backed the measure — along with two other regents who had voted for it in 1995.
“In a civilized democracy, as long as we’re true to our convictions, I think it’s appropriate to reach out to other people to try to accommodate them,” he explained. “That’s why I say I support this. It does not excite me to do so. But this resolution is not about my convictions. It’s about a symbol.”
UC was the first university system to eliminate race-conscious admissions policies, but court decisions and legislative actions have forced other state systems to follow UC’s lead.
Though it eliminates the earlier policies, the new resolution states clearly that UC will continue to abide by Proposition 209. It does not address the controversial issue of UC’s quantitative admissions formulas, one bone of contention for liberal legislators and student protesters. The measures simply state that those formulas will be reviewed by the end of the year, in time for changes to affect the 2002 entering class.
Acknowledging that equity in higher education cannot be achieved without equity in the K-12 system, the measure also affirms the university’s commitment to outreach and retention programs.
At UC, the affirmative action ban resulted in sharp drops in minority enrollment at some campuses and professional schools. At UC Berkeley, for example, admission of Black students fell from 515 in the fall of 1997 to 157 a year later.
Repairing a Reputation
But in addition to the question of admissions, university officials have felt the ban made it more difficult for them to recruit even those minority students who were admitted under the race-neutral regime. In 1998, for example, all 14 Black students admitted to study at Berkeley’s law school chose other campuses, leaving the first-year class with only one African American — a student who was admitted a year earlier but deferred.
“If you read SP-1 there’s nothing in there that ought to make anyone feel that they’re not welcome,” Connerly said after the vote. “The welcome mat from my standpoint was always there. If this somehow cleans it off, makes sure that they understand it’s there, God bless, I’m glad to be a part of it.”
But he warned that the change will do nothing to address the profound achievement gap faced by Black and Latino students in California.
Connerly went along with the 11th-hour modifications that Hopkinson made in order to ensure the board’s full support — and mollify members of the state legislature, which controls the university’s purse strings. The changes included declaring SP-1 and SP-2 as “rescinded” instead of the milder language stating that they are “superseded” by the new resolution.
Also eliminated was a clause, apparently written by Connerly, stating that “some students at the University have expressed pride in knowing that they were admitted based on their own accomplishments.”
Though the measure does not abolish the university requirement that 50 percent to 75 percent of students be admitted based on academic criteria alone, it ensures that the issue will undergo a full review by the end of this year so that new policies can be adopted in time to affect students applying for fall 2002.
Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and state assembly speaker Robert Hertzberg — both regents by virtue of their office — were among those who made it clear they would not have supported the measure without the amendments.
Though not the resolution’s sponsor, regent Bill Bagley has been pushing for its repeal ever since 1998, when Democrat Gray Davis was elected governor. The person in the governor’s chair has the privilege of filling vacancies on the Board of Regents.
Like many inside and outside the university, Bagley, a Republican and former legislator, viewed the measures as a campaign strategy in Pete Wilson’s aborted presidential run.
“We are not presently returning to affirmative action per se,” Bagley said just prior to the vote. “We are repairing the reputation of the university. It’s a message to the academic community and the world that we are no longer the sponsors of a national movement. It’s also a message to future Boards of Regents: Please reject all who would use the university for or against all ideological causes.”
Davis did not show up for the action, and many observers had long said it would be inappropriate for the governor to vote against state law. But he commended the move in a brief statement.
Many of those who were present were visibly moved by the decision. Among them were regent Tom Sayles, a Black businessman from Los Angeles who was appointed to the board by former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
“The day I was appointed as a regent was probably the proudest day of my life,” says Sayles. “The day we passed SP-1 and SP-2 was probably one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.”
Sayles noted that his son is now at Stanford because “I couldn’t forcefully argue, in light of SP-1 and SP-2, that he should come to the University of California. Now I can do that. We’ll bring him back for graduate school.”
But, for many students, simply removing SP-1 and SP-2 is not enough.
“It’s bittersweet,” says Abram Jackson, a junior at UC-Davis and liaison to the African American community for the campus’ cross-cultural center. “It’s a partial victory, but it’s just the first step in a long run of actions. In terms of society in general, we have some issues to work on.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com