Berkley admissions process focuses affirmative action debate


BERKELEY, Calif. -- The goal, accepted by everyone of good will here at the University of California, is to make this elite American campus as diverse, colorblind and anti-discriminatory as possible. But to get there, it turns out, requires some racial gerrymandering every bit as convoluted as anything the notorious apartheid government in South Africa ever cooked up.

Over at the law school, for example, when the proportion of Asian-American students starts to get too high, the admissions committee begins reading Asian applications "as if they were white," according to one committee member.

At the school of journalism, the dean unabashedly explains that he has hired some prominent reporters onto the faculty not simply because they were highly qualified, but also because they were black.

And in the undergraduate admissions office, where next fall's freshman class of around 8,000 is being winnowed from more than 22,000 applicants, prospective students are assigned ratings based on, among other things, the color of their skin.

This is affirmative action as practiced by one of the most liberal, enlightened universities in the United States. Yet such racial hair-splitting is one reason why, after just a generation of effort, the entire notion of race-based preferences is coming under scrutiny.

Nationally, the question of rolling back affirmative action is already a prominent theme in the 1996 presidential race even before it has officially begun.

In California -- which often sets trends for the rest of the nation -- voters may get their say next year. A referendum is proposed that effectively would ask if state-administered affirmative action programs should be halted on the grounds that they discriminate against white people.

Amid the sheltered confines of Berkeley, meanwhile, where administrators have struggled for years to build a utopian community comprising students and faculty from nearly every ethnic group, they're battening down for the approaching storm.

"You know, you can take affirmative action away from the students who are here, and we may march or write our senators," said Tajnesha Williams, 20, a junior from Los Angeles who said she had been accepted into Berkeley under the affirmative action program. "But what about the people who were rioting in the streets? If they take this opportunity away from our community, what are we going to do with all the anger?"

The fundamental public policy problem is this: Berkeley administrators want their campus to reflect the tremendous ethnic diversity of a state in which, by the year 2000, whites no longer will hold the majority.

"You cannot have excellence in our modern society without diversity," said Chang-Lin Tien, Berkeley's Chinese-born chancellor, who suffered profound racial discrimination as a young immigrant to the U.S. 40 years ago. "And we need to be educating the future leaders of this state, who will come from among the disadvantaged."

But the number of blacks, Latinos and Native Americans eligible for Berkeley admission -- measured solely by their high school grades and college entrance test scores -- is far below their proportions of the general California population.

So Berkeley, like many universities that take account of factors such as poor inner-city schools and economic hardships that disadvantage many minority students, admits half of its freshman class on considerations other than academic merit.

According to a complex admissions formula, applicants are assigned "social diversity" ratings based on their ethnicity, socioeconomic status and whether they are disabled. Students with higher social diversity rankings -- poor blacks and Latinos, for example -- can get into Berkeley with lower test scores than white counterparts who have suffered no significant social or economic hardship.

Yet the Berkeley formula also means that the African-American son of a well-to-do physician automatically enjoys preferential consideration over the white son of a physician, even if the two youths grew up in the same neighborhood, attended the same schools and earned equivalent grades and test scores.

To critics, that's nothing short of racial discrimination.

"You subvert the whole principle of civil rights if you say it's OK to discriminate against some people and not others," said Thomas Wood, a former philosophy professor and author of the "California Civil Rights Initiative," the planned referendum to end affirmative action programs in the state.

"All Americans are rooting for the day when we will have a colorblind society," Mr. Wood continued. "But we can't build that colorblind society by continuing a system of racial preferences."

But to many minority students, already sensitized by pseudo-academic debates over whether they are genetically inferior to whites, the controversy over affirmative action sounds a lot like old-fashioned racism.

"I can stand up academically to any white man, yet the assumption is that I'm not qualified to be here," said Veronica Torres, 23, a first-year law student. "American society is so far from colorblind. So you can understand if I don't believe in the commitment of a lot of white employers to affirmative action. The day we can't sue them is the day they will stop hiring us."

At the same time, the complex debate over affirmative action also defies simple assumptions about racism, as a man like Ward Connerly shows.

Mr. Connerly, the owner of a Sacramento consulting company, strongly opposes affirmative action programs because he says they judge individuals according to their race and end up stigmatizing minority members more than they help them.

His argument has weight because he sits on the governing Board of Regents of the University of California. He also is black.

"Today, I might be fashionable because I'm black, so I might be part of the protected class," Mr. Connerly said. "But 10 years from now my granddaughter might be living under a predominantly Hispanic government, for example, and the Hispanics, feeling they haven't gotten their fair share, might say it's time to take away our privileges. If it can be a factor for my benefit, it can also be used against me. And that's why granting preferences based on race is just wrong."

Significantly, the current campus uproar is not about admission quotas -- something the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled are unconstitutional. Berkeley officials adamantly insist they do not fix the numbers of blacks, whites or Latinos in advance, but rather seek to "reflect the geographic, socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic diversity of California."

Berkeley admissions director Bob Laird said he doesn't have any computer models that would reveal how many minority students would have been accepted if the freshman class were filled simply by the applicants with the highest test scores.

But he said such a straight merit system would put Asians and whites behind the vast majority of desks -- and virtually eliminate artists, musicians and athletes, not to mention minority members, who are now admitted by looking beyond traditional academic measurements.

But the controversy over affirmative action is not centered on the goal of achieving a diverse campus -- something even the harshest critics of affirmative action say they want to see. The question is whether diversity ought to be accomplished by granting preferential treatment according to race.

If universities, the argument goes, genuinely want to enroll people from different backgrounds who have faced down personal adversity -- an inner-city black youth who did her best in a rough school, for example, or a Latino teen-ager who helped support his struggling family -- why not simply assess the accomplishment rather than the skin color?

The end result -- a multicolored student body -- would likely be the same, but the means to the end might raise fewer objections.

"We don't try to define what merit is," said Mr. Wood. "If it means overcoming adversity, that's fine. But we do say that, whatever merit is, you can't define it based on ethnicity."

In fact, Berkeley officials say, that is precisely the direction in which they are moving.

"Undoubtedly, we will ask in more finely grained ways, What does disadvantage mean?" said Patrick Hayashi, associate vice chancellor for admissions. "We have begun to do that, and we will continue to do that."

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