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U. of Calif. Ends Racial Preferences

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 1995; Page A01

SAN FRANCISCO, July 20 – The regents of the University of California, the state system of higher education that led America into the modern age of affirmative action, voted today to end race-based admissions at its campuses. It was a historic shift away from the racial set-asides that revolutionized higher education.

Urged on by Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who is defining his presidential bid with a call to end affirmative action, the University of California regents voted 14 to 10 to stop university officials from using race-based admissions practices at the UC system's nine campuses. The practices had allowed members of underrepresented minorities, namely blacks and Hispanics, to enter the universities with lower test scores and grades than their white or Asian competitors.

The giant UC network, which has 162,000 students, is one of the country's largest and most prestigious systems and stands at the center of the nationwide debate over affirmative action in universities and colleges. It is also one of the country's most demographically diverse and complex systems; its student population is 52 percent white, 23 percent Asian, 12 percent Hispanic and 4 percent black, with the remainder of the students unidentified by race.

"We can't tolerate policies that trample on individual rights," Wilson told the regents, six of whom he appointed. "What we want to do is celebrate the individual."

To both applause and hisses, Wilson called affirmative action unfair and discriminatory and said it was wrong for university officials to admit unqualified students on the basis of race alone, while denying opportunity to qualified applicants.

Before the vote, the 26 regents listened to more than 60 speakers attack and defend the use of race as a criteria in university admissions, in often painfully personal ways.

Today's meeting, which came a day after President Clinton vowed continued federal support for the concept of helping minorities and women in hiring and education, was interrupted by a bomb threat that cleared the building. Several hundred protesters appeared outside and six were arrested for blocking the entrance.

As the vote approached, several audience members shouted: "You're voting for racism!" After the regents voted 15 to 10 to abolish affirmative action in hiring practices,the audience, filled with affirmative action advocates, including students, ministers and Rainbow Coalition founder Jesse L. Jackson, broke into chants and singing that disrupted the meeting. The regents reconvened in another room to take the 14 to 10 vote on admissions policies.

The proposal to end race-based admissions policies was introduced by Ward Connerly, a Wilson appointee and black businessman who said affirmative action was polarizing the nation and needed to be curtailed. He said he was shocked to find that on some UC campuses, only 40 percent of the students are selected on grades and test scores alone. The rest fall under other selection categories, some of them racial or ethnic.

Connerly said racial preferences no longer serve their original purpose of righting old wrongs and have instead become an "obsessive preoccupation." Nowhere is the preoccupation as great as at universities, he said.

The issue has come to dominate the political landscape in the nation's largest and most racially diverse state. A statewide vote on affirmative action is expected next fall.

Many speakers, as well as the president and all of the vice presidents, chancellors and the entire academic senate of the University of California system, challenged the governor's contention. They argued that affirmative action was producing a diverse student population and that the universities, far from suffering, were world-class.

"We are a public institution in the most demographically diverse state in the union," UC President J. W. Peltason told the regents in his defense of racial considerations. "Our affirmative action and other diversity programs, more than any other single factor, have helped us prepare California for its future. . . . To abandon them now would be a grave mistake."

Many speakers said the regents should not be forced to tackle such a highly politicized issue – especially one being pushed by a presidential contender. "We're in the cross-fire between national campaign politics and the politics of protest," caught in "the rhetoric of anger," said Ralph Carmona, a regent who supports affirmative action.

California has led the nation on affirmative action and the University of California's campuses have been at the forefront, producing at the universities of Los Angeles and Berkeley some of the most diverse student populations in the world.

In the past three decades, UC-Berkeley, for example, has undergone dramatic change, from an almost all-white student body to today's numbers: 39 percent Asian, 32 percent white, nearly 14 percent Hispanic, 6 percent black and 1 percent American Indian.

If affirmative action were to end, it is widely assumed that enrollments of whites and particularly Asians would climb, while blacks and Hispanics probably would suffer. One UC study predicted that the number of blacks would decrease by 60 to 70 percent at Berkeley.

One by one, politicians, students, academics, activists and executives stood before the regents and made impassioned pleas on affirmative action.

End it, said Nao Takasugi, a Japanese American state assemblyman. "It is nothing more than state-mandated discrimination and no different than the internment of me and my family," said Takasugi, who like 125,000 other Japanese Americans was placed in camps here during World War II.

The arguments cut across racial stereotypes. White males spoke in support of affirmative action, and some blacks against. Asian Americans quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Others Asians, such as Lee Cheng of the Asian American Legal Foundation, said affirmative action had caused discrimination against Asians. "It's blatant racism," Cheng said.

But many speakers declared: "I am here today because I am a beneficiary of affirmative action."

Barbara Lee said just that. A black state assemblywoman from Oakland, Lee said "affirmative action works." She warned against turning back to "the dark days of exclusion."

Jackson also lectured the regents, directing many of his comments directly toward Wilson.

"I do not wish to be colorblind," Jackson said. Society should not be "race-neutral," he said, "but race-caring."

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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