Monday, June 27, 2005 | This is part one in a three-part series.

Introduction: California, the nation’s most diverse state, was the first to abolish affirmative action. In 1995, the University of California Board of Regents approved special resolutions that banned racial and ethnic preferences in university admission and employment. A year later, the state’s voters passed Proposition 209 which extended the ban to all public entities. Richard C. Atkinson was president of the University of California at this time. In this condensed version of a speech that he gave last month at the University of Michigan, he describes UC’s experience and lessons learned, and makes recommendations for the future.

After reviewing the results, Atkinson concludes that racial and ethnic diversity are in great trouble. He says: “Proposition 209 asked the University of California to attract a student body that reflects the state’s diversity while ignoring two of the major constituents of this diversity – race and ethnicity. A decade later, the legacy of this contradictory mandate is clear. Despite enormous efforts, we have failed badly to achieve the goal of a student body that encompasses California’s diverse population. The evidence suggests that – without attention to race and ethnicity – this goal will ultimately recede into impossibility. Any state tempted to emulate the example of California should think long and hard about the consequences.”

He also asks the important question: “How do we talk to each other about affirmative action without being mired in a rancorous stalemate over value?” In his conclusion, Atkinson advocates moving forward toward another kind of affirmative action, one in which the emphasis is on opportunity and the goal is educational equity in the broadest possible sense.

Opportunity in a Democratic Society: A National Agenda and Lessons of the California Experience

“Affirmative action had long been an important tool that allowed UC, a highly selective public university, to admit talented, underrepresented minority students who for one reason or another had not met all of its academic requirements. The University of California considers students “underrepresented” if they are members of a racial or ethnic group whose collective eligibility rate for UC is below 12.5 percent, the proportion of public high school seniors statewide from which UC is required to draw its undergraduate students under the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education. The underrepresented groups for UC are African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.

“We reoriented our outreach programs, which previously focused on race and ethnicity to now focus on low-performing high schools – that is, schools whose students’ academic performance ranked at the bottom of California high schools. In doing so, UC would qualify greater numbers of African-American, Latino and Native American students because they are disproportionately represented in low-performing schools.

“The University’s mandate to select from a statewide pool of the top 12.5 percent of students meant that in some high schools as many as 40 percent or more of the graduates were eligible, while in other schools not a single student qualified for UC. After the passage of Proposition 209, we implemented a second path to admission, called Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC), or the 4-percent plan. ELC made the top-performing 4 percent of each high school in California eligible for UC – if the students also completed a set of high school courses required by the University, known as the a-g requirements.

“We reorganized our transfer programs so that students who completed two years at a Community College with certain grades in required courses were guaranteed admission to a UC campus.

“Nearly a decade after the implementation of SP-1 and Proposition 209, two findings are evident. The first is that race-neutral admissions policies drastically limit the ability of elite universities to reflect diversity in any meaningful way. The second is that we will never resolve the conflict over affirmative action by an appeal to the values invoked on each side of the issue. The dynamics of the public debate create a situation in which compromise is not possible because each side claims the moral high ground.

The results: By 2004, underrepresented minorities constituted 18 percent systemwide of all entering students – close to the pre-SP-1 figure of 21 percent in 1995.

“UC’s outreach programs have made some inroads on the huge problems facing teachers and students in California’s poorest and most challenged K-12 schools. Comprehensive review has made UC’s admissions process fairer to students because it looks at their academic record not in isolation but in the context of the individual student’s school and personal circumstances.

“We have also increased the number and proportion of students from low-performing high schools, a major goal of the ELC program. There are several reasons for this. At the outset of the program, UC launched a major effort to let students, parents and counselors know about ELC. Every high school student eligible for the program was sent a letter from the UC president. This letter congratulated them on being in the top 4 percent of their class and encouraged them to complete the necessary a-g courses so they could qualify for UC. A few students were already eligible for UC but simply did not realize that fact until they learned of their inclusion in ELC. Others who had not taken certain a-g courses did so as a result of the letter. And a number of low-performing high schools that did not offer all of the a-g courses were under considerable pressure from students and parents to do so. Now virtually all of the students in the top 4 percent of their high school class have completed the a-g courses and thereby become eligible for UC on a statewide basis. ELC inspired students to become UC eligible and caused high schools to offer the courses students needed to succeed.

“Yet if we look at enrollment overall, racial and ethnic diversity at the University of California is in great trouble. At the undergraduate level, the modest rebound in underrepresented minority admissions in recent years is not across the board. It is almost entirely limited to Latino students. African-American enrollment rates have not recovered since their initial plunge following SP-1. In 1995, UC Berkeley and UCLA together enrolled a total of 469 African-American women and men in a combined freshman class of 7,100. In 2004, the number was 218, out of a combined freshman class of 7,350. African-American men, in particular, are virtually disappearing from our campuses. UCLA and Berkeley together admitted 83 African-American men in 2004, nearly half of them on athletic scholarships.

“Even before the ban on affirmative action, the University’s ability to admit underrepresented minority students was outpaced by the growth in the proportion of these students – especially Latinos – in California’s population. In 1995, before Proposition 209 took effect, underrepresented minority students accounted for 38 percent of California high school graduates and 21 percent of entering UC freshmen – a difference of 17 percent. In 2004, they made up 45 percent of high school graduates but had fallen to 18 percent of incoming UC freshmen – a difference of 27 percent. The gap will continue to widen because Latinos are projected to account for about 70 percent of the increase in California high school graduates in this decade.

“Let me now turn to another legacy of Proposition 209. During the campaign leading to its approval by the voters in the fall of 1996, public discussion of the issue polarized around two now-familiar sets of arguments. Opponents of Proposition 209 advocated racial preferences as a matter of sound public policy and rational self-interest: a multicultural society like California needs leaders from all backgrounds to ensure social harmony and cohesiveness; a diverse workforce is important to economic competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace; and diversity contributes to the quality of the educational experience for all students.

“Proponents of Proposition 209 countered with the view that such preferences are contrary to American values of individual rights and the policy of color-blindness that animated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They contested the validity of any definition of academic merit that gives a leg up to students on the basis of membership in a particular racial or ethnic group. And they argued that affirmative action promotes a culture of dependency among its supposed beneficiaries.

Tomorrow, part two: Atkinson looks at public attitudes and the stratification of American society.

Richard Atkinson is president emeritus of the University of California. He served as president of the UC system from 1995-2003. Prior to that, Atkinson served as chancellor of University of California, San Diego, was director of the National Science Foundation and was a long-term member of the faculty at Stanford University.

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