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UC Regents Decry but Keep Entrance Favors

Education: The board declares that a student's connections should play no part in admissions decisions. But for 'flexibility,' it stops short of ending such acceptances.


SAN FRANCISCO — The University of California regents declared Thursday that a student's connections to the rich or powerful should play no role in admissions decisions but stopped short of closing backdoor acceptances for a few friends and relatives of donors.

The seemingly contradictory action came in an effort to appease the Board of Regents' most vocal member--Ward Connerly--while at the same time preserving what has been a long-standing practice at UC Berkeley and UCLA to dole out a few places every year to the well-connected.

Connerly, who orchestrated UC's ban on racial preferences, initially urged his colleagues to abolish all special treatment for those students backed by "fat cats or friends in high places." Such a practice, he argued, undermines the university system's credibility when it maintains that students are chosen only for academic merit or their special talents.

But UC President Richard C. Atkinson appealed for some "flexibility" in admissions so campus chancellors can do what's in the best interest of their institutions.

UC officials say that merely a handful of students come through the back door--only four out of 8,300 admitted to UC Berkeley this year. No others among UC's eight undergraduate campuses reported any backdoor admissions this year.

Under pressure from Atkinson and others, Connerly softened his proposal so that it gives chancellors the right to intervene in admissions, provided they consult with the faculty and report each case to Atkinson and the chairman of the Board of Regents.

The guts of the resolution stated: "Admissions motivated by concern for financial, political or other such benefit to the university do not have a place in the admissions process. If chancellors elect to admit students outside of established criteria, the Academic Senate should be consulted."

Connerly acknowledged that, as amended, the "fuzzy" wording offers no written guarantees that chancellors won't do favors for major donors or political power brokers. But he said he has been given verbal assurances that the practice will not continue.

Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the Democratic nominee for governor, said the new reporting requirement will be a "tempering influence" on unseemly favors.

The issue of what Connerly calls "VIP set-asides" surfaced two years ago after a series of articles in The Times documented how UCLA had admitted more than 200 such applicants since 1980 after they had been initially rejected or classified for denial.

Though such favors are routine at private colleges, the disclosures of preferences for the well-connected were embarrassing for the public university system because the regents were abolishing affirmative action on the grounds that it gave favorable treatment to one group over another.

The Board of Regents in 1996 passed a vaguely worded resolution that cautioned against any attempts by elected officials--or the regents themselves--to "influence inappropriately" the outcome of individual admissions decisions.

But Connerly complained that the vote was silent on preferences for donors and began pushing for a tighter resolution.

According to a five-year survey by UC, conducted in 1996, an average of 215 prominent individuals each year had lobbied chancellors on the various campuses about the admission of a relative or friend. UCLA was admitting half a dozen students promoted by such individuals, and Berkeley was admitting five.

Less competitive campuses were admitting one or none.

Since then, two of the most ardent defenders of VIP admissions--former Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien and former UCLA Chancellor Charles E. Young--have stepped down.

Their successors have been more cautious.

UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale said he made a decision during his first year on the job not to intervene in admissions upon the request of any prominent individuals. Instead, he said, he sent them letters explaining that he has nothing to do with the admissions process.

But Carnesale said he does not want to foreclose options.

"No one should be able to buy their way into UCLA or threaten their way into UCLA," Carnesale said. "But can we take into account that someone built a building on campus that we would not otherwise have had? I would argue that we should. It should be rare, and it should be no more than a tiebreaker between two qualified students."

The subject of UC undergraduate admissions continues to be a thorny one, especially at Berkeley and UCLA, which each turned away more than 20,000 qualified students who sought to join this fall's freshman class.

Even as Connerly's fellow regents praised him for going along with them on VIP set-asides, he raised another issue: special treatment for the sons and daughters of UC graduates.

Atkinson explained that the only benefit to "legacies" of UC graduates comes if they are living out of state. Then they are treated like California residents during the admissions process--meaning they need a minimum 3.3 grade-point average, rather than the 3.4 required of out-of-state applicants.

Connerly said he would bring up the matter at the next meeting.

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