SACRAMENTO — The impact of the University of California regents' historic decision to eliminate race as a factor in hiring and admissions rippled through classrooms and across America on Friday, galvanizing forces on both sides of the issue for an epic political and social battle.
The issue was immediately injected into the 1996 presidential race as the Rev. Jesse Jackson pressured President Clinton to intervene in the university's decision of what Jackson called "ethnic cleansing" and Gov. Pete Wilson took to the national news shows to boast about the victory he orchestrated.
"I was the first presidential candidate to bring this issue up and, I think more to the point, the first one to do anything about it--the only one to do anything about it," Wilson said Friday on NBC TV's "Today Show."
Meanwhile, California's prestigious university system faced a looming crisis as state Democratic legislators threatened to cut funding over the regents' decision and university officials expressed fear for their safety on campuses as well as a heartfelt disappointment in the institution.
"I'm starting my 46th year at UC as a faculty member and administrator and yesterday was the worst day of my life," UC Santa Cruz Chancellor Karl S. Pister said. "The decision was wrong. It was done in a political environment that was totally inappropriate. . . . I worry that we've set a very bad example for the rest of the country."
Education leaders predicted that California's decision--which came during a tense, 12-hour meeting in San Francisco that was interrupted by a bomb threat, riot police and a room-clearing protest--is likely to be repeated nationwide.
"There is no question that what happens in the University of California affects higher education profoundly," said Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, the leading organization of colleges and universities. "You do have the possibility here of a prairie fire. Those of us who believe in these programs must do everything we can to douse the flames."
At week's end, the issue of affirmative action, which has been part of a simmering national debate since November's election, had exploded onto the front burner.
Clinton, under pressure to lead his party on the delicate balance of jobs and race relations, declared in a long-awaited national speech Wednesday that he supports a "full-throated" commitment to preference programs for women and minorities.
Barely 24 hours later, in a dramatic showdown between Jackson and Wilson, the University of California Board of Regents voted 14 to 10 and 15 to 10 for a pair of measures that constitute the nation's most sweeping rollback of affirmative action laws.
After the first measure was passed, Jackson locked arms with more than 100 protesters in the packed regents meeting room and sang "We Shall Overcome." The regents, who fled out of fear for their safety, reconvened the meeting privately in another section of the building and passed the second measure about 9 p.m.
One proposal requires UC to stop using "race, religion, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin" as criteria in its admission decisions unless applicants can prove that race or other factors had been barriers to their success. The policy change takes effect Jan. 1, 1997.
A similar provision governs the hiring and contracting practices as of Jan. 1, 1996. The proposals, made by Regent Ward Connerly, a Wilson appointee, also recommend that UC increase the percentage of students it admits solely on the basis of academic achievement, and call for a marked increase in funding for outreach programs to better prepare students from underrepresented ethnic groups to become eligible to attend UC.
The regents' vote and Clinton's speech combined this week to define the arguments and the players on both sides of a volatile issue that continued to echo Friday. The day's developments also included:
* In Sacramento, Assembly Democratic Leader Willie Brown said many of his 39 members in the lower house told him the UC system is "not worthy of being given the opportunity to be fully funded" because the regents showed a "lack of independence" by siding with Wilson.
Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), the Democrats' leading budget expert, also sent a letter to the regents saying their decision makes it "virtually impossible" for him to support a budget that includes "any money whatsoever" for the regents.
"You have absolutely forfeited your right to govern what was the world's most prestigious university by engaging in a blatant political act," Vasconcellos said. "How dare you rush to judgment--according to no public interest timetable--to join the desperate effort of a presidential candidate to jump- start his non-start campaign."
* In a telephone call with Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, Jackson asked that the U.S. Justice Department seek a restraining order against the implementation of the university regents' decision on the grounds that it violated civil rights laws.