In the past year, no issue has so touched the University of California as affirmative action and the controversy it has generated.
I have seen the affirmative action initiatives undertaken at UCLA in the past 20 years succeed in yielding the most diverse population of any research university in the United States. Simultaneously, UCLA has developed into one of our nation’s finest institutions of higher learning. This was no coincidence: Diversity and educational excellence go hand in hand.
But affirmative action has come under fire nationwide. In California, the Board of Regents, which governs the nine universities in the University of California system, voted last year to halt the consideration of race, gender and ethnicity in admissions and hiring decisions. This vote was regrettable and could undermine important gains.
UCLA could not have achieved its current level of diversity without affirmative action. We were an excellent university 25 years ago. We are a much greater university today — in large measure because we are so diverse. In 1980, our entering freshman class was two-thirds Caucasian; today, more than two-thirds are ethnic minorities: 39 percent Asian American, 24; percent Latino and 8 percent African American, The percentage of Latino students now in the freshman class is a record number for UCLA.
The notion that affirmative action benefits only those individuals whom it reaches out to is mistaken, in my view.
It is not something we do for them; it’s something we do for ourselves.
As we look to the future, we must ask ourselves how we can maintain diversity at UCLA without the benefit of affirmative action. We know it will be a great challenge.
At least 80 percent of UCLA’s 25,500 under-graduate applicants last fall met the eligibility standards to attend, When choosing a freshman class from so many qualified applicants, our practice in recent years has been to admit about 60 percent on academic criteria alone — grades, test scores and the quality of courses a student has taken. But we’ve learned that these measures don’t tell the whole story of a student’s potential. So we admit the remainder of the class — who still meet our eligibility requirements — on academic and supplemental material combined. These criteria include California residence, ethnic identity, physical and learning disabilities, educational disadvantage, family income, whether a student comes from a two-parent or single-parent family, is first-generation college bound or has special talents and experiences.
By abandoning consideration of race or ethnicity in selecting students, we fear the number of Latino and African-American students at UCLA will decline significantly while the number of Asian and Caucasian students will increase. Our analysis suggests there is no other admissions formula that will yield the atmosphere we’ve created at UCLA.
And so we are looking in other directions. We will strengthen our outreach programs, which help students become eligible to attend UC. Low eligibility rates are a major barrier to increasing participation of Latino and African-American students.
Our outreach programs have, produced impressive results in achieving UC-eligibility among those students we work with directly in junior high and high schools, but we reach a relatively small number. We are examining ways to expand our outreach programs, to involve many more prospective students and help preserve UCLA’s diverse community. In addition, faculty members throughout UCLA are hard at work in K-12 schools, researching ways to improve the quality of urban education for all students.
The individual students are the ones lost in the affirmative action debate. Students like Rosalee, a young Latina woman from the San Fernando Valley whose high school guidance counselor looked at her junior high grades and suggested she enroll in a community college, rather than pursue her dream of attending UCLA. Rosalee said it felt like being told, “You’re not smart enough.”
She had almost abandoned her dream when one of our outreach, programs found her. A UCLA counselor helped Rosalee choose classes that would enable her to become UC-eligible. She was pushed to take extra science and English. The work paid off: As a senior, she was accepted to four of the colleges she applied to. She chose UCLA.
Rosalee earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA a couple of years ago, becoming the only one of three siblings to graduate from college. Today, she works on our campus as a counselor in the same outreach program that recruited her. In fact, she visits her old high school, helping others follow in her footsteps.
UCLA and other universities across the nation must work vigorously to keep the doors open to all groups in our society. We must always be able to tell the Rosalees of California, “Yes, you are smart enough.”
DR. CHARLES E. YOUNG Chancellor, University of California-Los Angeles
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