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UC Berkeley Admissions Dispute Becomes Heated

The school's chancellor rebukes the chief of the Board of Regents for issuing a critical report.

October 17, 2003|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl has accused the chairman of the university's governing board of behaving irresponsibly and doing "singular damage" to the campus by issuing a report critical of its admissions process.

Berdahl, normally a low-profile academic leader, charged in a blistering letter that John J. Moores, chairman of the UC Board of Regents, has "undermined confidence" in UC Berkeley's admissions practices by publicly questioning why hundreds of students were admitted to the campus in 2002 with relatively low scores on the SAT entrance exam.

"You have done the university a great disservice and shown open contempt for reasoned discourse about complex issues," the Berkeley chancellor wrote in the Oct. 10 missive.

The confidential letter, obtained by The Times, is the latest development in an expanding controversy about student admissions at the University of California, especially at Berkeley, its flagship campus.

The letter reflects growing rancor over the issue among UC regents and campus administrators as the prestigious university system struggles to cope with severe budget cuts and rising demand for limited slots.

And it underscores the sensitive, politically charged nature of the issues raised in Moores' report -- questions that are rarely debated in public.

Moores said Wednesday that he had sent a private e-mail response to the Berkeley chancellor; neither Moores nor Berdahl would release the e-mail. The regents' chairman said, however, that he was disappointed that Berdahl had chosen to write in such terms.

"Whatever his personal agenda is for writing such a letter ... my concern always has been and continues to be that the admissions policy of the University of California be legal and fair," said Moores, a wealthy San Diego businessman appointed by Gov. Gray Davis.

He emphasized that he undertook the analysis after hearing complaints from parents that the university's admissions process was confusing and opaque. "A little transparency is a wonderful thing -- and it would be good for this university," he said.

Moores' preliminary analysis, which was the subject of an Oct. 4 story in The Times, showed that nearly 400 students were granted entry to UC Berkeley in 2002 -- 3.5% of those admitted -- with scores of 600 to 1000 on the SAT entrance exam, far below the 1337 SAT average for that year's admitted class. A perfect score on the test is 1600.

The report also showed that about 3,200 students with SAT scores above 1400 were denied entry to the campus in 2002, including more than 600 students with scores above 1500.

Overall, the analysis found, admissions at UC Berkeley "might not be compatible with [its] goal of maintaining academic excellence." Moores, the report's main author, said he was assisted in compiling the data by Tracy M. Davis, a UCLA graduate student in education and former UC student regent.

The preliminary report did not attempt to explain the reasons for Berkeley's admissions patterns. It did not break down admissions by race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status; it did not indicate whether successful applicants had special talents in such fields as athletics or music; nor did it measure changes over time.

Berkeley officials have strongly defended their admissions practices while acknowledging that the data in the report are generally accurate. They said many of the high-scoring students who were not admitted had relatively low grade-point averages, withdrew their applications, applied in one of three very competitive majors, or were residents of other states, for whom standards are higher.

Of the low-scoring students, all demonstrated excellence in their applications in other ways, either academically or personally, and all are doing well at Berkeley, the officials said.

More generally, Berdahl and other UC administrators have taken issue with the report's reliance on the SAT, which they say is a less reliable predictor of success in college than other measures. In 2001, then-UC President Richard C. Atkinson publicly criticized the test as unfair to many students, prompting reforms in the widely used exam. Atkinson and others advocated more reliance on such measures as grade-point averages or the SAT II subject exams. Moores' report indicates, however, that SAT scores are often correlated with grade-point averages.

The controversy over the report flows in part from continuing concerns from regents and others about a recently revamped UC admissions policy. Known as comprehensive review, the policy allows UC campuses to take personal factors as well as grades and test scores into account for every applicant. The policy has been in use systemwide for two years and at Berkeley in various forms since 1998.

Critics, including UC regent Ward Connerly, argue that the more flexible standards may be an attempt to get around the state's 1996 ban on affirmative action, which barred consideration of race and ethnicity in public institutions, including colleges and universities.

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