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An Insider's View of UC Admissions

Berkeley's director of admissions has won praise for fairness and compassion. But as he prepares to retire, he worries about the state's failure to create more opportunities, especially for minorities.


A groan ripped through the audience of high school counselors. Bob Laird, the man who decides if their students make the cut for UC Berkeley, had just announced his plans to retire.

A few high school counselors stood and began to applaud. A dozen more rose to their feet. Soon the entire auditorium joined in a long, noisy tribute to Berkeley's admissions director.

What was going on here? Hadn't this guy crushed the dreams of thousands of their high school seniors who wanted to go to Berkeley?

The answers came when Laird was mobbed after his speech. "You don't have a right to leave us," one tearful middle-aged counselor said, smothering him in a hug.

Tributes poured from the mouths of the "college counselors," those high school advisors who work tirelessly to find spots at the best colleges and universities for their most promising high school seniors.

They talked about Laird's integrity, his compassion and fairness. They talked about experiences they shared with Laird over the last two decades as he sought to bring the very best students of all races to Berkeley and, in particular, integrate the campus with more African American, Latino and Native American students.

"Whether you agree with his views or not, you have to admire his passion," said one college counselor.

Ivna Gusmao, a counselor at Chatsworth High, describes Laird this way: "He's the conscience of the UC system."

Laird, 60, said he will step down Nov. 15 because of the "wearing" pressures of his job. He plans to work on a novel, do some writing about admissions and spend more time with his wife, Karen Rice, and two sons, Sam, 14, and Casey, 10.

Laird has spent 22 years at Berkeley as a student recruiter and admissions officer. For the last six years, he has been director of admissions, overseeing the office during a particularly tumultuous time.

The UC Board of Regents in 1995 banned admissions officers from considering race, ethnicity and gender in selecting students--a decision reaffirmed by the voters a year later with Proposition 209's ban on affirmative action.

When new policies were implemented in 1997, admissions of black students plunged by 66% and Latino students by 53%, although they have rebounded somewhat since then.

Earlier this year, Berkeley was slapped with a class-action lawsuit filed by every major civil rights groups in California on behalf of minority students who were denied admission. Their claim is that the new system is unfair to minorities.

Meanwhile, the competition for freshman slots at Berkeley has soared. In 1993, when Laird became director, 19,800 students applied to become freshmen. Applications rose to 31,100 for this fall's class, although the number of seats available to freshmen has remained the same.

Question: What does it take to get into Berkeley these days?

Answer: With 31,000 applications and 8,450 admission slots, the competition is really severe. The mean GPA for this fall's freshmen was 4.15 and the mean SAT was 1,307. But about a quarter of the students we admit have GPAs below 4.0. We read every application twice and find students who have done remarkable things, but not hit that 4.0 mark on GPA. We look for kids who have done the best with what's available to them. Berkeley admitted 27% of its applicants for this fall, and that makes us the most selective public university in the United States. And in some ways that's not a good thing.

Q: Most universities love to brag about how desirable they are, their rising caliber of students and how many students they turned away. Why don't you do the same?

A: For a public university to turn down almost three-quarters of its applicants, it's not a good thing. Almost all of our applicants are California residents and most of them have parents who have paid taxes that support the university. Denying that many students admission creates a whole series of problems in terms of public relations and maintaining broad-based university support.

Q: Why not just double the number of freshmen you take at Berkeley, and at UCLA, for that matter, the other campus where competition is going through the roof?

A: It's certainly clear that Berkeley is not going to increase in size, because of a legally binding agreement with the city. I don't see any easy resolution to this problem. In fact, I think the problem is likely to become worse. The tendency for large numbers of students and parents to focus on what they see as the top 10 or 12 universities across the country is huge.

Q: What schools are you talking about?

A: It's mostly the upper Ivies and Berkeley and Stanford and possibly a small number of private liberal arts colleges that aren't in the Ivy League, and possibly UCLA. With the increase of high school graduates in California and the state's failure to plan over the last 15 years for a steady expansion of higher education, the pressures are going to increase on places like Berkeley and UCLA.

Q: We know all about the surging competition at Berkeley and UCLA. There must be some way . . .

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