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in education | COLLEGE SCENE / KENNETH R. WEISS

UC System Tries to Mask Applicants' Racial Identity

November 18, 1998|KENNETH R. WEISS

Leave it to the University of California to come up with a "V-chip" to mask the ethnicity of its applicants.

UC Board of Regents, which never seems to get beyond thorny racial politics, has decided that its admissions officers will no longer be privy to the race or ethnicity of this year's applicants.

So although more than 60,000 high school seniors this month will check a box next to their race, the information will be electronically erased from their applications before it reaches those who will decide if they get in.

Why?

Because Regent Ward Connerly doesn't trust them. His own admissions officers, that is.

"I suspect there are a few people who want to use this information in impermissible ways," said Connerly, who pushed for a university-wide ban on racial preferences before it became state law.

The new practice has infuriated admissions officers. They fume at the insinuation that they would subvert university policy and state law--so they can admit more black and Latino students. For now, though, they prefer to seethe privately rather than pick a public fight with the university's most famous regent.

The electronic masking is actually a compromise.

Connerly and fellow Regent Meredith Khachigian wanted to do away with the race and ethnicity box altogether. They suggested that it invades students' privacy to ask for such racial information and pointed out how the number who declined to state their race or ethnicity rose dramatically last year.

But administrators argued that the application is a convenient way for the university to collect racial data on its students--information that must be reported to the federal government.

And without determining the race of its applicants, the university would have no way of knowing who was applying and how well it was doing in selecting students who reflect the state's population.

"Let us not bury our heads in the sand and preclude the university administration and the public from knowing which students are seeking an education at the university," wrote 13 state lawmakers when they learned of the proposal to scrap the racial box. "It benefits no one to hide from the truth."

So the racial question remains this year, although students are instructed that supplying such information is optional and "for purposes of statistical analysis only; it is not used in the admissions process and will have no bearing on your admission status."

Students received similar instructions last year when those who declined to reveal their race nearly tripled to 14.5%.

University officials believe the numbers may have jumped markedly because applicants had to hunt down a numerical code number for their race rather than just check a box.

But Connerly and others chalk it up to lingering distrust that preferential treatment is not really gone. "The perception is still there," he said, "that if you are Asian or white, your application is going to be viewed differently and you have to run uphill."

So who are these 8,814 students declining to state their race?

UC officials have cross-checked these students with racial information supplied when the students took the SAT and concluded that 97% are Asian and white.

Trying to ferret out their reasoning, UC Berkeley researcher Gregg Thomson last year surveyed students by telephone.

His award-winning research paper found that not only were these students not revealing their race, many of them also made a self-conscious decision to not disclose their family's wealth, so as to not unnecessarily jeopardize their chances for admission.

Such cross-checking, Connerly said, "morally violates the privacy of someone who declined to state" their race.

He wants to curb such curiosity at the university. He has pushed for computer imaging technology to block out racial information on every application before it reaches admissions officials.

Connerly acknowledges this plan does not seamlessly screen an applicant's ethnicity. He would like to do more, such as have names withheld.

There are other ways for race to surface on applications; such as when a student reports among extracurricular activities that she was president of the Black Student Union, or if one touches on his racial identity when he writes the mandatory, soul-searching essay.

Connerly would like to purge these references too, but isn't sure how it realistically can be done.

"All I can think," Connerly said, "is that someday we will get to a point in this state that names and all that kind of stuff will no longer matter."

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