A Return to Race Preferences?

If there is one thing that I learned during my 12 years as a Regent of the University of California, it is that many college administrators have the arrogant attitude that they know better than the people themselves what is best for the people. Arrogance and the attitude of superiority seem to be part of the DNA of much of the university community. Many leaders at the University of California reinforce this belief.

Ten years ago, the people of California approved an amendment to their Constitution (Proposition 209) that forbids government agencies, including the University of California, from granting “preferential treatment” based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the admissions practices as well as employment and contracting activities of the university. As a major practitioner of race preferences, the university opposed this ballot proposal. Nonetheless, Proposition 209 was supported by 55% of the electorate.

For approximately two years, the chancellor of the UC Berkeley campus, Robert Birgeneau, has been trying to fuel an effort to overturn Proposition 209 and to restore race and ethnic preferences within the UC system. This effort is triggered by the frustration of Birgeneau and others at being unable to use preferences to increase the enrollment of black and Latino students at UC’s more academically rigorous campuses – Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego.

While few of sound mind believe that Birgeneau has any reasonable chance of convincing the electorate of California to restore race preferences, at a time when the rest of America seems to be moving away from such policies, his ill-conceived campaign bears scrutiny, especially in view of the support that Birgeneau seems to be receiving from his boss, University of California President Robert Dynes. It is also noteworthy that neither Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is the titular head of the UC Board of Regents, nor the Board itself, seems inclined to take Birgeneau behind the proverbial woodshed to curtail his rhetoric and defiant behavior.

Speaking at a daylong conference on the effects and future of Proposition 209, Birgeneau characterized the initiative as “profoundly wrong, morally wrong.” He added: “We can't have a truly fair system until 209 is reversed.”

For those whose memories have gone fuzzy, UC administered a set of dual admissions standards, based on race and ethnicity, prior to the passage of 209. For Asians and whites, there was one standard, and for “underrepresented minorities” – blacks, Latinos and Native Americans – there was another. The latter involved lower requirements, the receipt of extra points based on skin color, ethnic background and “race” and, often, the outright waiver of minimum eligibility requirements for “special admissions by exception.” Being an “underrepresented minority” automatically qualified an applicant as a “special admit.”

Predictably, the passage and implementation of 209 resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of students from groups that had previously been the recipients of preferences, most notably blacks, and a sharp increase in the number of students from groups that had previously suffered from this discrimination, most notably Asians. While the enrollment numbers have slowly rebounded, they have not increased fast enough for race advocates and for certain UC administrators. Some argue that the practice of using academic standards – grades and standardized test scores – to admit students to an academic institution gives an unfair advantage to Asians, which is a startling argument.

Apart from the fact that Birgeneau is biting the hand that feeds him; namely, the taxpaying majority of Californians who voted for Proposition 209, his arrogance and contempt for the will of the majority should not go unnoticed. Nor should the rather obvious consequence of what he would like for the people to do by repealing 209. First, let’s assume that preferences were restored and UCLA could double its number of black students, from 95 to 190. Is it fair to give 95 black kids extra points so that they can attend UCLA while denying admission to 95 Asian and white kids who would have attended based on their own achievement? How do we know that the incremental 95 black students would opt to attend UCLA instead of a “historically black college” as many are choosing to do now, instead of a general population campus such as UCLA? Is it worth the resentment and stigmatization that will befall all black students to live under the cloud of inferiority that preferences visit upon them?

What difference does it make that a student attended UCLA as opposed to California State University at Long Beach? Does anyone, other than university administrators, truly believe that it is appropriate to admit an under-qualified black student to UCLA so that the student can “enrich” the learning environment of all those white students who are missing out so much on the “lack of diversity” that the black student brings?

I doubt that Birgeneau and his troops have given much thought to these questions. One can be certain, however, that the voting public will do so should the notion of preferences be put before them again for consideration. In the meantime, maybe a few questions need to be directed to UC officials about excessive compensation and a host of other issues confronting the university. For one, I am eager to hear the answers.