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UC Policy-Maker With a Mission: Vilma Martinez

February 09, 1989

Vilma S. Martinez, a Los Angeles attorney, has been a member of the University of California's Board of Regents since 1976. She served as president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund from 1973 to 1982. Martinez lives in Los Angeles with her husband, attorney Stuart R. Singer, and the couple's two school-age children.

She was interviewed by Times staff writer Sam Enriquez.

Question: How well is the UC system doing to attract and enroll Latino students?

Answer: There have been dramatic improvements in the efforts of the university to recruit, enroll and retain Chicano/Latino students. . . . The biggest stumbling block for the Latino community, and for the university, is that only a very small percentage of our population becomes UC-eligible. When you look at the (UC eligible) rate of blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites, there's a huge disparity. About 5% of Latino graduates and 4.5% of black graduates are UC-eligible. For whites, it's about 16% and for Asians it's about 33%. . . . But of the eligible kids, we're capturing larger and larger percentages.

(In the fall of 1987, 8.5% of the more than 100,000 undergraduates in the University of California system were Latino. 10.3% of the entering freshmen that year were Latino).

Q: Have eligibility percentages changed significantly since you've been a regent?

A: No. . . . We are at 5% (of Latino graduates) now, and maybe it was 4.5% before. So the improvement has been statistically insignificant. That's one of the reasons I helped start an organization called the Achievement Council, which works with selected high schools, elementary and junior high schools, to turn them from schools that aren't graduating college-eligible minority youngsters into schools that do. . . . In other words, the UC level is too late. It has to start at kindergarten, if not before.

Q: What needs to be done?

A: I think we need to prepare the teachers better.

Q: Have the state education reforms of 1983 helped?

A: I don't want to be too negative. I want to say that the reform movement has succeeded in raising everyone's achievement levels. That is a positive, and what is most positive about it (is) that it suggests that, if goals are set and people buy into the system of improving the quality of education, the teachers can make it happen and they're the key. . . . But it has not succeeded in closing the gap between Anglo achievement and poor minority youngster achievement. That gap has gotten bigger.

Q: Do you think that, if all Latino parents went to the school principal and said, "I want my child to be eligible for the University of California by the time he graduates," it would make a difference?

A: You bet it would. And if the parent showed up for family night and visited regularly and called the teacher to discuss grades, I think it would make a huge difference. . . . Studies show that all parents, when asked about their educational aspirations for their children, aim very high. There is no difference between a Latino parent and a white parent and an Asian parent.

Q: What about attracting Latinos to pursue careers in academics? Only about 3% of the tenured professors in the UC system are Latino.

A: That is the most difficult area, and we've had the most disappointing results.

Q: Can the Board of Regents increase the number of Latino professors hired?

A: As a policy-maker I can say to the president and the chancellors that I think it's desirable for UC to recruit from its own (Latino) Ph.D. graduates, and that I urge them to do so. I can say that. But given that UC is an academic institution, I can't say, "From now on I mandate Berkeley to hire blank, and I mandate UCLA to hire blank and UC San Francisco blank."

Q: Do you hear much criticism from Latinos?

A: Oh, yes. And I understand it. I too was once young and I'm still impatient. But I also know that it would be wrong not to recognize what I have with my own eyes seen, which is all the hard work of so many people of so many diverse racial backgrounds to make it happen for minority kids. A lot of people are involved in it and a lot of people care deeply about it. There have been changes. . . . There ought to be more and they ought to be faster, and I've been saying that for a long time and will keep on saying it.

Q: What will happen to California if those changes don't happen?

A: I think it means we will have a much more impoverished state. California won't be the powerful economic presence in both the financial and world scene that it is today. . . . I believe that we are going to pull it off, but I believe that it is going to be rocky getting there.

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