University of California officials seek post-affirmative action path to diversity


IRVINE, Calif. -- It all sounded so simple last month, when the regents of the University of California voted to stop considering race and gender in admissions or hiring.

But on UC's nine campuses, people are trying to figure out

exactly what the end of affirmative action means -- if it means anything at all.

In the admissions office at the University of California, Irvine, director Susan Wilbur and her staff are fielding calls from minority students who wonder if their acceptances for the fall semester have been revoked. (They haven't.)

In the office of student services, Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez says he's looking for "new strategies" to continue programs meant to attract a diverse group of students.

In the closet-sized home of the American Indian Summer Institute, Essie Lev and Kathryn Savage are afraid their eight-week-long program, open only to Native Americans, may no longer be welcome.

"There's really a sense of paralysis right now," Ms. Lev said.

On July 20, after months of discussion, hours of debate and protests led by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the University of California regents declared that the University of California "shall not use race, religion, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin" in admissions, hiring and contracting.

Thus the prestigious California system became the first public university system to abandon affirmative action. It was a victory for Gov. Pete Wilson, Republican candidate for president, and a setback for affirmative action's supporters.

"I had hoped for a different outcome," said UC President Jack W. Peltason. Along with the university's chancellors, he had opposed the change, which takes effect in January 1996 for hiring and contracting and in January 1997 for admissions.

"There's still a major commitment to diversity," said Susan Menning, a UC Irvine spokeswoman. "But we have to do what the regents say."

What the regents say, however, is not easy to figure out.

Can the university recruit in poor neighborhoods' schools, if it's obvious that almost all the students there are of one race? Can the university continue to attract substantial numbers of Latino and African American students if it doesn't look to race? Can the university accept corporate gifts for the computer-science program that accepts only American Indians?

Ms. Lev and Ms. Savage, who bring 36 Native Americans to the campus each summer, scramble all year to raise the $200,000, from corporate gifts and foundation grants, that pays for the program. They are worried about their institute's future.

"It is possible," Ms. Savage said, "that the university will not support programs that target specific ethnic groups. It is conceivable that the university will not allow us to use their space without a fee, that the university would not allow us to use their equipment without a fee."

The students, who must be Native Americans attending two-year or tribal colleges, have an average age of 32. They study management and computer science and intern at companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Rockwell.

Many, Ms. Lev said, need help with fundamentals that students in city high schools can learn from their friends: how to get a college application form, how to seek financial aid, how to register for classes.

With its private sponsors, the program doesn't drain any university funds that might go to other students. And almost no other students, Ms. Lev said, face the same isolation and the same problems that American Indians face as they continue their education.

"We're focusing on students we feel have been systematically locked out," Ms. Lev said. "We're trying to bring them back into the system."

She sees the program as providing equal opportunities to Indian students. But Governor Wilson views affirmative action very differently.

"We cannot tolerate university policies or practices that violate fundamental fairness, trampling individual rights to create and give preference to group rights," he said on the day of the regents' vote.

Many students took issue with the governor.

"I don't even look at this program as part of affirmative action at all," said Preston Ivy, who is attending the American Indian program.

"It puts us in the game. Other, non-Indian people, they're ahead in the game," he said.

"I look at this as our right to be able to participate in education."

"There's not an exception being made," said Ms. Savage, a member of the Cherokee tribe. "It's an opportunity being offered. We will not let this program die."

On other parts of the campus, the end of affirmative action policies may not be felt at all.

The regents carefully exempted any programs that could lose federal or state funds if they stop using race or gender preferences. On the Irvine campus, about $1 of every $10 comes from the federal government.

And the UC system, with more than 163,000 students, can still aim for diversity by seeking out poor applicants, or students from rural counties, or athletes and artists -- so long as they don't consider race.

"Ethnic identity was just one of the criteria," said Ms. Wilbur, the UC Irvine admissions office director. "It was never the only criterion we were allowed to consider."

She was fresh from a long conference call on the issue with vice chancellors from the other university campuses, all of whom are trying to assess how their policies will change.

"The truth of the matter is we are just at the beginning stages of understanding what this resolution means," Ms. Wilbur said.

University of California admissions guidelines allow campuses to accept up to 60 percent of applicants on the basis of grades alone. For the other 40 percent, the admissions officers can consider other factors -- such as place of residence, poverty, disability or special talents.

Ms. Wilbur believes that if admissions officers may not consider an applicant's race, "we will not be able to achieve the same results."

The university has run the numbers. "What we have found is that it is most likely that more white and Asian students will be enrolled," Ms. Wilbur said, "and the percentages of African American and Latino students will drop."

The 30-year-old Irvine campus, in Orange County, has more than students, 2.4 percent of them black, 12 percent Hispanic and 46 percent Asian.

"Diversity is enormously important," Ms. Wilbur said. "One of the goals of a university is to prepare our students for a dynamic society where they will encounter many different ideas. They need to come in contact with people who think differently than they do."

Mr. Gomez, who oversees UC Irvine's outreach programs to elementary and high schools, said he presumes those links can continue -- so long as the university is looking for disadvantaged students in general.

It's unclear, he said, if programs such as the summer course for American Indians would be affected.

"It's a real shame," said Ms. Savage, as she sat in the Indian Institute's office, "that all that the university has stood for for 25 years, all the good things that have happened because of diversity, would be dismantled because of politics."

Governor Wilson pushed for the end of affirmative action as President Clinton declared his support for such policies.

On the campuses, students and staff say they are caught in the cross-fire. "It's all about politics," Ms. Lev said.

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