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Changing UC Berkeley’s Admissions Policy

It’s true that some U.C. admissions policies needed fine-tuning. But the regents had in their midst–and chose to ignore–a workable model for reform: U.C. Berkeley’s undergraduate admissions policy. Over the past decade, the policy had been reworked several times to arrive at a delicate balance. It scrupulously avoided quotas, drew only from a qualified pool of applicants, weighed race against several other factors and quickly removed ethnic groups from its list as their lots improved. In short, it achieved what the convulsive national debate on affirmative action has been seeking: the elusive middle ground.

The seed for the regents’ backlash was planted last summer, when a frustrated father named Jerry Cook showed up at Connerly’s office with his wife, Ellen, and a blue binder full of numbers. Their son, James, had been rejected at U.C. San Diego medical school, while blacks and Chicanos with significantly lower GPAs and mcat scores were accepted. “When I finished that meeting there was no doubt in my mind that the reason he was turned down was because he was white,” explains Connerly. He then placed the definitive call to U.C. President Jack Peltason: “Jack, I just met with these people. Is it true we’re admitting medical students on the basis of their race?” Next he called the governor, who pounced on the opportunity. By July, the two had convinced a majority of regents to join their revolt.

When they drafted their resolution, the regents left in place only one instruction to admissions officers. In a fit of penitence, Governor Wilson himself scribbled in a directive which encourages the worst kind of victim-creep. Blending self-help jargon with the soothing tones of Victorian paternalism, it reads: “Consideration shall be given to individuals, who, despite having suffered disadvantage economically or in terms of their social environment (such as an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional home or a neighborhood of unwholesome or antisocial influences) have nonetheless demonstrated sufficient character.” Good news for the Patti Reagans of California, where the divorce rate pushes an unwholesome 60 percent, and self-help gurus spy dysfunction in every home. But then, by “unwholesome” and “antisocial,” he probably just meant poor.

Meanwhile, the real answer to Cook’s complaint was there all along. Connerly’s bottom line on affirmative action is this: “How can you tell the son of a wealthy black doctor from Massachusetts that he gets in, while if you’re Vietnamese and your mom and dad run a doughnut shop and get up at 4 a.m. every morning you don’t?” This is precisely the complaint that prompted Berkeley’s earlier soul-searching affirmative action reform. In the late 1980s, Asian students and faculty hounded the admissions office, accusing the university of forcing Asians to meet higher standards. Their backlash prompted an investigation by an internal task force as well as the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Education Department. Within a year, their cause became a rallying cry for George Will and friends, who were eager to embrace nonwhite victims of the preference wars. Late that year, Republican Representative Dana Rohrabacher opened congressional hearings on the U.C. system. With all the attention, Berkeley had to do something.

What they did was draft a new admissions manifesto, known as the “Karabel Report,” after its author, sociology professor Jerome Karabel. In concession to Asians, the new policy loosened what were previously rigid and substantial minority preferences. First, it increased the percentage of students accepted on the basis of merit (meaning grades and SAT scores) alone to 50 percent. It ended the guarantee to accept all minorities who meet minimal U.C. eligibility standards–ranking in the top 12.5 percent of California high-school seniors. It created a few new categories of special admissions, most importantly, for “socioeconomically disadvantaged” students. And it phased out preferences for Latinos and Filipinos. At the time, black students circulated posters blaring “yo! wake up! new admissions policy exterminates our people from campus.”

Although their fears were not unfounded, the new policy struck a happy utilitarian balance, maintaining some diversity while keeping most people satisfied. The percentage of black freshmen did drop from 12.5 to 6.2 percent. But those who got in were better prepared, with higher grades and SAT scores. (Last year, the average GPA for black students was a 3.43, compared to 3.89 for whites.) The graduation rate for blacks four years after entering Berkeley still hovered at a troubling 30 percent, but that doubled after six years of enrollment, making it much higher than the national average of 37 percent. And black students who get their diplomas boast grades as high as any graduate.

The rest of the class had no complaints. The Asian presence nearly doubled, from 19.2 percent to 37 percent. In a show of solidarity, the campus’s main Asian group even printed up flyers this semester protesting the regents’ decision. In fact, except for some nasty hate mail dropped anonymously in black law students’ mailboxes last winter, there were almost no gripes about the policy.

No doubt, Berkeley’s racial engineering still has its pitfalls. Several professors, many sympathetic to affirmative action, lamented that a scattering of freshmen were woefully unprepared, “dropped in the tank and left to flail,” as one put it. Still, this price often buys a lively classroom dynamic. Says David Cohen, a professor of rhetoric who guest teaches at the University of Chicago and is not sure if he supports affirmative action: “The best students are the same as at Chicago, and at the low end, there are some who have great difficulty with a grammatical sentence, which would never happen there. But here, the things they know are much broader than the typical Ivy League elite. They are much more courageous. At Chicago, they are very respectful, not just of me, but of Kant and Hegel. Here, they’ll say anything. Sometimes, it’s stupid. But a lot of times it makes for very interesting class discussions.”

Berkeley’s campus culture is not immune from racial balkanization. Since the 1978 Bakke decision, American universities are allowed to claim only one rationale for promoting diversity: the kind of racial mixing that contributes to the education of all students. But a stroll around this campus will leave you dubious. On Friday evenings, the black students kick back at a step rally in the main plaza, while to their right, behind a metal fence, crews of white fraternity brothers chug down beers at the Bear’s Lair. The university hosts a black theme house and an orientation class for black freshmen called “Their University or Ours.”

And Berkeley’s infamous American Cultures requirement, designed to “promote understanding of race and ethnicity in American society,” doesn’t always help the cause of integration. For a course to count toward the American Cultures requirement, it must be designed to incorporate material covering at least three of the following racial groups: African Americans, indigenous peoples, Asian Americans, Latinos or European Americans. Classes that meet the requirement are taught by professors in almost every department–history, environmental science, even library science (how classifications reflect racial bias). The committee that approves new courses has been known to police racial distinctions strictly, sometimes with absurd results. In one case, for example, a professor applying to teach a class on the literature of immigrant groups in New York in the 1920s suggested focusing on Asians, the Irish and Jews. Her proposal was rejected on the grounds that both the Irish and the Jews are white–never mind that nearly all New York immigrant groups at the time were white. In the end she resorted to teaching some books by Latinos living in Miami.

So Berkeley’s policy wasn’t an antidote to racial separatism. It was, however, a remarkably flexible and fair-minded strategem for ensuring some diversity without rigid quotas. And it would be particularly perverse for a public institution like Berkeley to ignore calls for diversity or paper over racial tension, nowhere more evident than in California. The most coherent defense of affirmative action in the U.C. system I heard came from Robert Post, a professor at the law school. “We’re a public institution, and we have a political function to create a public culture,” he argues. “It’s not a matter of entitlement, or recognizing victims, but rather of making a positive decision that one of the university’s roles is to help heal racial rifts.”

Ward Connerly agrees the playing field is not level. “If we think our job is done now we’ve missed it,” says Connerly. “The question is, how do we as a people relate to each other as individuals?” But coming from a man who now talks to the governor daily, his solutions seem hollow, at best naively blinkered. “I was in Vegas this morning at a meeting, and I had on a polo shirt with a Bugs Bunny on it. This white man sitting next to me said, `Hey, I like your shirt.’ It broke a barrier. We need to do more of that in our society.”

Berkeley administrators are less credulous. Two weeks into the start of this semester, Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien held a press conference at Fremont High School in East Oakland to sign the Berkeley Pledge, committing $1 million to recruiting efforts. “We care deeply about preserving diversity,” he told an audience of nervous black and Hispanic high-school kids. “We care about serving you.” Fremont is a school, like dozens of others in California, where most of the students are black or Chicano, and poor. Only half of them will graduate, and maybe one lucky senior out of 500 will even be eligible for U.C. admissions. Granting that lone achiever a small advantage is the least the university can do.

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