Several University of California regents who voted publicly to roll back affirmative action admissions for minorities and women have privately used their influence to try to get their relatives, friends and children of business partners into UCLA, in some cases ahead of better qualified applicants who were turned away, a months-long Times investigation shows.
Confidential documents reviewed by The Times also show that Gov. Pete Wilson--the political force behind the anti-affirmative action movement who used the university's controversial board vote last year to boost his presidential aspirations--made two casual requests as well.
Other top state officials, including state Sen. Ken Maddy (R-Fresno) and former Lt. Gov. Leo T. McCarthy, a Democrat, sought favors at UCLA through what has long been a back channel into the university for the state's well-known and powerful.
In all, The Times' investigation documented hundreds of requests made to the Westwood campus through the back door during the last 15 years by more than 80 former and current public officials. These requests were either made directly to top UCLA officials or relayed by UC's Sacramento lobbyist, Stephen A. Arditti, records show.
"Anyone in prominence who has made a recommendation--a school principal, a legislator--those carry weight," said Regent Ralph Carmona, contrasting the way the VIP requests were handled with the university's recent decision to shelve affirmative action.
"People who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are blacks and Latinos, don't have that kind of weight to carry," said Carmona, who is a supporter of affirmative action. "And we've got to recognize that."
The cases examined by The Times show that not all back channel requests were successful and, in many cases, the applicants recommended by regents and others were academically competitive even without help.
In one instance, a regent tried to influence a student's admission on behalf of a legislator who had just helped the university defeat a bill, records show. The regent tied the legislative action to his admission request in a remarkably candid letter addressed to UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young.
Chancellor Denies Favoritism
Regents involved in the requests said in interviews this week that they were merely passing on letters of recommendation to the highly competitive Westwood campus, where thousands of UC-qualified students are turned away each year, including those with perfect grade-point averages.
But some of them acknowledged Friday that their behind-the-scenes actions may appear to be unfair.
"I agree, no, it isn't always fair," said Regent Meredith Khachigian, who, records show, intervened on behalf of her daughter and another Orange County student in 1989.
"But at the same time, I think that it's anyone's responsibility, if you think that something should have happened that didn't happen . . . [to] call and find out why. I didn't insist she be accepted. I inquired. As any parent could or should."
University officials concede that they give requests from the regents and other top officials "personal" service. UCLA's Young said his administration responds to special requests for housing and campus parking but not for admissions.
"Am I aware of any instances where people have tried to pull strings? Yes," Young said Friday. "Am I aware of times when people tried to pull strings and got somebody in? No.
"Am I aware of times when regents said, 'Oh, my nephew is applying for next year. Would you please see to it that people are aware of that? And give it special attention? Yes.
"I don't think that means admit them," the chancellor said. "I know the admissions office would not interpret it that way. It would mean that they would make sure the people involved would take a look at it."
But in other cases records show that the students whose names were forwarded by officials had academic records below the school's rigorous cutoff standard, were headed for rejection or had already been turned down. In some of these cases, the political inquiries had dramatic effects.
The regents involved in some of these requests were among the majority who voted last July to strip race and gender considerations from undergraduate admissions--criteria designed to give a boost particularly to blacks and Latinos, who are underrepresented in the university population.
The controversial vote drew national attention--President Clinton called on the regents to change their minds--and struck at the heart of the question of how to fairly allocate limited slots for undergraduates. The problem is particularly acute at Berkeley and UCLA, the most popular of the nine UC campuses, where the law of supply and demand means thousands of qualified students are turned away each year by officials who have the luxury of picking the best.