Blacks Remain an Extreme Minority at UC Campuses
James Marshall didn’t expect it would be easy, being one of just a handful of Black students at the University of California, Berkeley’s, high-ranking business school.
But his payoff came at graduation — job interviews with some of the country’s most prestigious firms.
“It’s about getting that set of rules: OK, this is how you engage an employer; this is how you get this job,” says Marshall.
This fall, preliminary figures put 129 new Black freshmen at Berkeley out of a class of about 4,000, slightly higher than last year, but still an extreme minority. About 11 percent of the class will be Hispanic, well out of step with a state where Hispanics make up about 30 percent of the population and are projected to be the largest ethnic group by 2011.
For Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, it’s a disturbing trend in diverse California.
“There are very talented people out there, I believe, who for a whole variety of reasons end up not coming to Berkeley, or to another of the flagship campuses in the UC system,” he says.
“Where are the leaders going to come from?” asks Christopher Edley, dean of UC Berkeley’s Boalt law school, where just nine Black students are expected in the incoming class of 268. “It’s been such a short period of time in which our universities have begun producing minority graduates in substantial numbers that to let the door swing shut now would really be a calamity of historic proportions.”
Birgeneau, who took over the top job at Berkeley last year, has been outspoken in his dismay at enrollment figures and the need to change them. He questions whether voters intended these kinds of consequences when they passed Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure banning consideration of race in public hiring, contracting and education.
But Ward Connerly, the former UC regent who chaired the Proposition 209 campaign, bristles at the idea that there’s a problem with race-blind policies.
“I just don’t understand why certain people have gotten themselves all worked up about who gets to go to Berkeley and UCLA as if that’s the only path to a successful life in California, because it is not and the evidence is abundant that it is not,” he said.
Connerly, founder of a management and land-use consulting firm, is a graduate of Sacramento State University, one of the 23 campuses in the California State University system, the state’s other four-year university system and the nation’s largest, with about 400,000 students.
Black and Hispanic enrollment is higher at CSU — there, Black students comprised about 8 percent of the freshman class last fall.
Still, CSU Chancellor Charles Reed says he’d like to see those numbers increase.
“I go out and visit public schools and talk to people and I figured out just walking around that students, parents and, frankly, a lot of teachers in the public schools really don’t know what it takes to go to college,” says Reed, whose staff has blanketed schools and libraries with a “How to Get to College” poster spelling out requirements.
“I ask kids sometimes, `Do you want to be a millionaire?’ Everybody wants to be a millionaire. I say, `It’s not all that hard. All you have to do is get a college degree. You’ll earn a million dollars over your lifetime more than someone who didn’t.”’
Even though Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians are underrepresented at Berkeley, the school is far from all-White. The expected freshman class will be about 47 percent Asian-American (a huge category encompassing ethnicities from Samoa to India) and 31 percent White.
“We should all be extraordinarily proud of the achievement of Asian-Americans,” says Birgeneau, “and we need to learn how to propagate that to other groups.”
Sharon Browne, principal attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which has defended Proposition 209, says race-blind policies are working. She counters that students now are admitted into universities where they can compete effectively and says the old system papered over public school inequality.
After Proposition 209, UC poured millions into outreach programs, partnering with high schools to help students prepare for college.
“I’m seeing what’s happening as a result of Proposition 209 as a positive improvement,” says Browne. “It starts at the lower grades, but it has that cascading effect and eventually, when these students who are really being well-grounded in K-12 start applying to the UCs, I think we’re going to see that, yes, race does not matter in California at all.”
Looking at UC systemwide, admissions are up slightly for Black students since 1997, with fewer black students going to Berkeley and UCLA and more going to newer branches of the 10-campus system.
No single factor affects UC enrollment — for one thing fees have soared. At Boalt, for instance, Edley is looking into restructuring financial aid packages to offset hikes.
But one obstacle is “the absence of a community of learners who share their commitment to excellence, who look like them, who can encourage them not to give up when the going gets tough,” says Winston Doby, UC’s vice president for student affairs.
For Marshall, being one of about a half-dozen Blacks enrolled at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 2002 was “quite intimidating.”
His journey there wasn’t easy, either — his father had died when he was a toddler, and he eventually dropped out of Oakland schools. He found work, but realized he needed some credentials. So, he took the high school equivalency exam, went to community college and transferred to Haas.
Quite the success story, although fellow students may not have seen it that way. Marshall recalls being part of one team where his suggestions were ignored until another student repeated them. He still wonders exactly what was going on, but he’s got his suspicions — “When you’re an African-American student, people are suspect of your abilities.”
From an administrative point of view, Haas Acting Dean Richard Lyons says having so few Black students shortchanges everyone — and puts Haas at a competitive disadvantage in a diverse marketplace. The school’s doing what it can to change that, he says, but Proposition 209 is a constraint.
Marshall, 25, is among those trying to make a difference.
After graduation, he worked at a top accounting firm for a while but returned to work in Birgeneau’s office on underrepresented minority issues. In his free time he has volunteered at Stiles Hall, a private organization not bound by the affirmative action law, that is trying to boost Black enrollment at Berkeley by a number of means, including strengthening community ties.
This fall, Marshall headed to Columbia University to study for a master’s in education policy. After that, he hopes to enter Harvard’s law school, another challenge, another opportunity.
— Associated Press
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