Classmates at the University of California, San Diego asked Zim Ezumah about her hair. They asked her if she could do the Crip Walk. They asked if she was on a basketball scholarship.
Ezumah, who went to high school in south central Los Angeles, knew there weren’t many other black students at her new university. But she was stunned by just how alone she felt.
Black students are a rarity at UCSD. Only 1.6 percent of its undergraduate students are black, a stat that has become a rallying cry after an escalating series of racially offensive events around the university over the past month, starting with an off-campus “Compton Cookout” mocking Black History Month and culminating with a Ku Klux Klan hood on a campus statue. The Black Student Union demanded that the school increase its numbers of black students and faculty, calling them “embarrassingly low.”
Bringing in black students has been a problem for all the University of California schools: Ending affirmative action caused a steep drop in black student enrollment across the system 14 years ago, especially at elite schools.
But the problem is especially marked at UCSD: Only 41 black freshmen enrolled out of 3,566 California students this fall, the lowest rate among all UC schools.
Several forces have kept black student numbers low on the leafy La Jolla campus. The San Diego school has trouble convincing black students who are admitted to say yes, partly because it plays second banana to more alluring schools, partly because of a bad reputation in the black community. It also uses an admissions formula that critics believe disadvantages black students because it doesn’t adequately weigh their grades and scores against the opportunities they may or may not have.
Only 17 percent of black freshmen who were admitted to UCSD actually decided to go there last year, compared to 44 percent of black students admitted to Berkeley and 54 percent at UCLA. Black students are usually more likely to say yes to UC schools than their white and Asian classmates, but in San Diego, the exact opposite has happened.
“I even had kids choose Riverside over UCSD,” said former Lincoln High principal Wendell Bass. “They don’t see it as a place where black kids go.”
But turning around the numbers won’t be simple. It means changing the culture of the school, its reputation, and attracting black students without setting off affirmative action alarm bells.
All students must take three steps before ending up at the elite San Diego school.
They have to earn the credits and grades to be eligible to apply in the first place. They must beat out other candidates for the selective school. And once they get accepted, they have to choose UCSD over other schools.
UCSD has struggled hardest with winning over accepted black students. UCSD is generally seen as less desirable than UCLA and Berkeley — for all students. It lacks a vibrant center like Telegraph Avenue. It ranks lower on national college lists.
While that is a problem for luring all students, black acceptees often have other, better options, including private schools that can offer scholarships based on race. And UCSD has been handicapped by the fact that the city of San Diego has a smaller black population than Los Angeles or Berkeley.
Being in the elite and isolated enclave of La Jolla hasn’t helped that reputation. Student surveys have found that students think the campus climate is cold. A bad rap for overall campus unfriendliness — deserved or not — is even more intimidating for black and Latino students, its Chief Diversity Officer Jorge Huerta wrote years ago.
But black students say the problem goes deeper than that. They’re constantly asked to speak for all blacks or quizzed about “the ghetto,” black students wrote in a recent report. Because Asian Americans are actually the largest ethnic group on campus, many students believe race isn’t a real problem there; some black students say their race blindness ends up being racism blindness.
Critics say UCSD has done too little as an institution to counteract those problems. Its diversity officer is part time. It doesn’t have an African American Resource Center. The problem, they say, is bigger than a few racist kids.
Another factor that experts say has hurt the recruitment of African American students to UCSD is its admissions rules.
After affirmative action was outlawed, California universities sought new ways to bring in disadvantaged teens without relying on race. Schools started weighing students’ personal circumstances. Berkeley and UCLA also judged each application by looking at accomplishments in the context of privileges.
UCSD, however, has stuck with a more formulaic system driven mostly by test scores, coursework and grades.
Former Berkeley admissions director Bob Laird called it “disastrous for black students.”
“Everybody had explained to San Diego for years and years that it has a discriminatory effect on black and Latino students,” he said. “But the campus said the formula was clearer.”
Admissions director Mae Brown said that academics are weighed heavily by all schools, even those with holistic admissions. And she argued that transparency is vital to the way it chooses students, one advantage of the formulaic method. Opponents of affirmative action have been suspicious that the opacity of holistic review could be a way of weighing race under the table.
“When we’re denying over 30,000 or more students, believe me, many of them call,” Brown said. “We can clearly say, ‘Here are the reasons that you didn’t make the cut.’”
Students have tied the low turnout of accepted black students to the delicate issue of campus climate. The Black Student Union wants the university to take concrete steps to welcome black students, from mandating that students take classes on black history to increasing the ranks of black faculty.
But courting black students is legally sensitive after the end of affirmative action.
Schools can’t give students any kind of tangible benefit based on their race — such as help preparing a college application — but there is a lot of gray area, especially when it comes to recruiting.
Many campuses hold sleepovers for admitted black students to help sell them on the school, but they can be a murky legal question.
Nina Robinson, student policy director for the UC system, said sleepovers focused on “the experience of black students” are allowed as long as they’re advertised and open to everyone. But campuses have struggled with how to handle them.
None of the universities have been sued for violating the law forbidding affirmative action, but no one is eager to be the first.
Former University of California Regent Ward Connerly, who helped end affirmative action, is eyeing the talks in San Diego, cautioning against “rigging a system” for black students. Others think it’s foolish to focus on getting eligible students to come when the pool itself is so small. They believe the university should tackle the disadvantages that black students face from elementary school up.
“They’re just trying to scoop more kids out of the same bucket,” said Cecil Lytle, cofounder of the Preuss School at UCSD, which has shown success with black and Latino kids. “What we’re saying is, ‘We need a bigger bucket.’”
And the school is still debating how to tinker with admissions. The Black Student Union originally pushed for a holistic system, then changed its mind, fearing it could be abused to wrangle more out-of-state students instead of diversifying the campus. Instead, UCSD is seeking to give greater weight to personal factors, such as high school quality. It is also piloting a new review system for a small number of students from disadvantaged schools.
“It’s an enormous challenge. And they’re working on it,” said Billy Vaughn, who consults universities on diversity issues. “But these things take a long time.”