Affirmative Action Special Report
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Struggling to Maintain Diversity

By Rene Sanchez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 11, 1996; Page A01

The curtain has begun to fall on affirmative action at the University of California campus here, and many in American higher education are wondering if their universities will be next.

Berkeley and the rest of the giant UC system, under orders to dismantle policies that have created some of the most racially diverse campuses in the nation, are struggling now with a task many other universities soon could face: to remove racial preferences from admissions without destroying student diversity that took years to build.

It is a job they dread. In recent weeks, university leaders have persuaded California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and the UC Board of Regents, which approved the ban on affirmative action, to delay the new policy another year. Some are still campaigning to kill it.

And here at Berkeley, the state's flagship university, administrators are busy striving both to appease the regents and to limit the impact of their order. Admissions rules are being revamped, and racial preferences erased, but Berkeley also is launching multimillion-dollar programs to cultivate and recruit more minority students.

"This will be a tremendous test of our courage and our convictions," said Genaro Padilla, Berkeley's vice chancellor for student affairs. "We've built a beautiful model for diversity. Now, we must find some way to protect it."

That battle cry is sounding on campuses nationwide. Since the UC regents made their landmark decision last year, many other public universities have begun to face powerful new pressures from state lawmakers and others to ban affirmative action in enrollment, hiring and scholarship decisions.

More than a dozen states are considering bills to prevent universities from using racial considerations in admissions or hiring. Last month, Colorado's attorney general changed how that state awards college scholarships, ruling that they should be based strictly on need, not race or ethnicity.

"The sentiment in California has certainly captured the attention of other states," said Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar at the American Council on Education, the nation's largest higher education group. "That's where they're taking their cue."

As a result, affirmative action is again becoming one of the most contentious issues in higher education. The debate involves a clash of ideals: Public universities, more than most government-supported institutions, strive to honor merit, yet they also are responsible for serving the entire public, including minorities who have lacked access to education. The conflict over those two goals is acute here in California, a state whose complex demographic mix reflects the nation's future.

Its university system, long acclaimed as one of the nation's finest, once led American higher education into the age of affirmative action. Now, it's being forced to lead it out.

Berkeley and the eight other campuses of the UC system, which has more than 160,000 students, have until spring 1998 to eliminate racial preferences. The regents, who oversee the UC system, approved the ban last year at the urging of Wilson, who argued that affirmative action was discriminating against more qualified college applicants.

The regents, who are appointed by the governor, wanted the new policy to begin next year. But debate over its merits is still so intense, and questions about how to rewrite admission procedures so complex, that they agreed to the delay.

The clash over affirmative action on California's campuses is hardly just pitting black students against white students. The state's large and growing population of Asian American and Hispanic students – a sign of things to come for other state universities – has made the issue even more difficult to resolve.

Nowhere is that more evident than here at Berkeley. This sprawling campus, with its Spanish-styled buildings nestled in the hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay, is ground zero in the battle. And it is riven with conflicting opinions.

Some of the university's Asian American supporters worry that affirmative action has hurt them because on average their scores on college entrance exams top any other racial group. For months, hundreds of Berkeley students, including many Asian American student leaders, have staged protests against the regents' decision. But the campus newspaper has consistently editorialized against using affirmative action in admissions.

The tension has spread to other UC campuses. A few weeks ago at UCLA, hundreds of students took over a campus building for several hours in protest of the regents.

"It's a complicated situation," said Daniel Park, 22, an Asian American Berkeley senior who supports affirmative action. "A lot of students here come from well-off backgrounds and good high schools and think everyone just should be treated equally by grades. They don't even stop to think that many other people didn't have the same chances to take SAT prep courses and things like that they did."

Ayisha Jeter, 18, an African American Berkeley freshman, said the racial diversity on campus was one of the main reasons she wanted to study here. Yet she said she is still torn at times by the use of affirmative action.

"If that's the only way they can keep all these different cultures here, then I think the system has to stay the same because that's so important in the world we're in now," Jeter said. "But sometimes I'm uncomfortable with it. You don't want people to think you only got in here because you're black. I mean, I have really good grades."

Today, only one-third of Berkeley students are white, well below the national average for public universities. The diversity here is so great that the campus does not even have a racial majority anymore. That did not happen by chance.

It took years of aggressively using affirmative action in admissions to sculpt the student body that Berkeley now boasts – and meticulous work to ensure that the academic credentials of its 21,000 undergraduates are better from it, not worse.

"When we started this push, it wasn't to make up for past injustices – we wanted to diversify the campus for its own sake," said Patrick Hayashi, Berkeley's vice chancellor for admissions. "We've shown that you can do that and strengthen your student body academically at the same time. But there's no question now that this will be very, very hard to continue."

In the last decade, the racial makeup of Berkeley's undergraduates has been radically altered. The university insists that it has never had racial quotas. But it weighs race and ethnicity as prominent factors, along with students' extracurricular activities and economic backgrounds, in selecting nearly half of its freshman class each year.

The rest are chosen strictly on academic merit.

In 1984, about 60 percent of Berkeley students were white. That percentage has been shaved in half. Today, Asian Americans make up nearly 40 percent of students, more than any other group on campus. The number of Hispanic students has doubled to 14 percent over the last decade. But the number of black students has remained roughly the same at 6 percent.

The looming ban on affirmative action will scramble the racial breakdown again here and on campuses throughout California. UC leaders say it will help Asian American students the most and white students marginally, and will reduce Hispanic and black admissions. One UC study predicted that the number of blacks attending Berkeley could decrease by 70 percent.

To comply with the regents' order, Berkeley officials will be required to rely more on student grades. But they also want to judge "opportunities" applicants have had to succeed academically, and what they made of them. For the first time, Berkeley will accept letters of recommendation from high school teachers on behalf of applicants. And each applicant will be scored from one to seven for their academic prowess and their personal background. "It will be a tremendous amount of work," Hayashi said.

The university also has launched the "Berkeley Pledge," a multimillion-dollar initiative to pour more resources into needy public schools in the Bay Area. The goal of the pledge is to enlarge the pool of minority students who are academically qualified to apply to Berkeley and thus lessen the ban's impact.

Getting into Berkeley has become extremely competitive. This year, it received more than 24,000 applications for admission. About 11,000 of those applicants had 4.0 grade-point averages or better. There are only 3,500 freshman slots.

Asian Americans, as a group, are best positioned to get them. Carol Christ, Berkeley's provost, said that about one-third of Asian American high school graduates in California are academically qualified to apply to Berkeley and other campuses in the UC system. In comparison, only about 13 percent of white students, 5 percent of black students and 4 percent of Hispanic students are qualified.

The regents have told UC leaders that although they cannot choose students based on race, they still may give preference to some students with disadvantaged backgrounds. Some educators have hoped that loophole could be a tool to admit at least the same number of black and Hispanic students. But Christ said that is unlikely.

"There are many, many poor Asian American students who are still in a more competitive position academically than other minority students, using that criteria," she said. "You can see how complicated the racial politics of this are. Every one of these groups looks at these statistics with a sense of alarm."

At Berkeley this year, the number of Hispanic applicants dropped and the number of black applicants hardly budged. But the number of white and Asian American students applying increased. Similar patterns have emerged at other UC campuses, although university officials say there is no way to link that decline to the new policy.

Chang-Lin Tien, Berkeley's chancellor, said his chief fear is that many qualified minority students will not even bother to apply because of the new policy.

"I've done much soul-searching on this, and if I thought that there was not any way we could maintain the kind of diversity we want and we need here because of this new policy, I would have resigned," Tien said. "But I'm not giving up. Our outreach can improve. Our admissions system can improve. But what I'm very worried about is the perception this creates, the damage it could do psychologically to the minority students that we very much want to come here. They may well think now that the University of California is not welcoming to them. That is where our biggest fight will lie."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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