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Merit, Not Symbolism, Keeps UC Diverse

March 14, 2001|S. SUE JOHNSON | S. Sue Johnson is chairman of the UC Board of Regents

In its 133-year history, the University of California always has strived for educational excellence and is today the best and most affordable public college system in the world. However, we may be backsliding to battles of yesteryear under the cloak of symbolism. One such battle may occur when the Board of Regents meets this week. It is expected to discuss whether to rescind SP-1, the 1995 resolution that ended racial preferences in admissions policy.

Speaking as one regent, I believe that the passage of SP-1 represented a step forward toward the goal of a society based on individual merit rather than race or group identity. Regardless of ethnicity, not one student who was UC-eligible before SP-1 became ineligible because of it. The university guarantees admission to all UC-eligible students, but there are not enough seats at Berkeley, UCLA and San Diego for every eligible student who wants to go there. Other UC campuses that have been vastly underrated are being recognized more and more as attractive alternatives.

The strength of our university is such that we are getting more freshman applications than ever (58,424), and we are admitting more African Americans, Latinos and American Indians (7,336) than we did in the last year of race-based admissions. It is obvious that thousands of potential students from every background believe that UC welcomes them.

Since adopting SP-1, the regents have reiterated their commitment to the goal of a fair admissions process and an accessible university through a number of major initiatives that better prepare students from underrepresented communities for college. These initiatives serve to ensure that students succeed once they arrive at UC.

It also should be noted that the implementation of SP-1 has revealed and underscored serious defects in the state's secondary school system. As a result, the Legislature and university leadership, together with the state's political and educational leaders at every level, are doing the heavy lifting to increase educational opportunity by overhauling K-12.

These and many other positive results have emerged in the post-preference era, but it now seems we may be slipping backward. Students at UCLA's and Berkeley's recruitment and retention centers reportedly have sent letters to underrepresented minority high school students to actively discourage them from even applying to UC until the regents rescind SP-1. Student regent Justin Fong wrote an article in the Berkeley student newspaper this month declaring his full support of this subversive ploy. Fong stated, "I am certain they [the centers] will continue to encourage young minorities to go to college, just not UC."

These recruitment centers are run by students and funded primarily by the $3 charge every student pays as part of campus fees. Millions of taxpayer dollars will be spent this year ($328 million) to promote UC outreach and encourage more applications, not less. These students' actions are tragically misguided, are a waste of resources and should be seriously dealt with by campus administrators.

This scorched earth policy, far from producing diversity, would have the effect of pulling up the ladder from deserving applicants.

There is no doubting the sincerity of many UC students who wish to see minority enrollments rise at UCLA and Berkeley. That is a goal shared by all in the university community. It would be far more constructive for these concerned students to apply their energy and activism to hold K-12 school boards accountable for not producing more UC-eligible African American and Latino students and more competitive students among those who are already eligible. That is the root of the problem that no amount of symbolism by the regents can overcome.

The better message to send is that we are all committed to continuing to provide access and diversity without artificial preferences being given to anyone based on race or ethnicity. The fact is, UC's door remains open to the best and brightest.

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