YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

UC Berkeley Divided Over Admission Policy Criticism

October 22, 2003|Daniel Hernandez and Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writers

BERKELEY — UC Berkeley freshman Tola Asuni says a university of only students with perfect SAT scores would not be one she would want to attend.

The fact that her prestigious UC campus admits some students with relatively low scores on the college entrance exam -- and considers a range of factors in its admissions decisions -- helps make the student body at Berkeley more dynamic and diverse, the 18-year-old said.

But Paul LaFata, a Berkeley senior and student government senator, says that academic excellence should always trump other factors in admissions decisions.

"This ought not be a social experiment, the University of California, Berkeley," LaFata said firmly.

As news of a report critical of the school's admissions process has spread through the campus in recent days, the UC Berkeley community is divided, much as society is, on the issues at its heart.

Some students criticize the university's relatively new admissions policy, which is known as "comprehensive review," arguing that it has allowed in students who can't compete. Others strongly defend it, saying that good test scores and grades alone should not be the basis of admissions decisions. And many are ambivalent or indifferent.

The comprehensive review policy, which was adopted after a statewide ban on affirmative action in public institutions, allows UC campuses to take personal factors as well as grades and test scores into account in admissions. It has been in use systemwide for two years and at Berkeley in various forms since 1998.

For many on campus, the growing debate over who should be admitted bears little resemblance to the battles over free speech or other movements that have roiled this activist community in the past. The issues are muddier, more complex -- and many of the relevant facts, for now, remain under wraps.

"There's not enough information," said Kevin Deenihan, 21, a senior economics major who runs a Web log for campus news. "It's still pretty vague."

The uncertainty expressed by many students contrasts sharply with the stand on the issue taken by UC Berkeley's chancellor.

Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl has heatedly objected to a critical report on UC Berkeley admissions, which was written primarily by the chairman of the UC Board of Regents -- stoking a public debate that is highly unusual at the top levels of the university system.

The chairman, John J. Moores, questioned why nearly 400 students had been admitted to the Berkeley campus in 2002 with SAT scores of 600 to 1000 -- far below the 1337 average for that year's admitted class. Sixteen hundred is a perfect score.

The report, which was described as preliminary, also showed that about 3,200 students with SAT scores above 1400 had not been admitted to the campus that year, including more than 600 students with scores above 1500.

Overall, Moores said, admissions at UC Berkeley "might not be compatible" with its goal of maintaining academic excellence.

In response, Berdahl sent the regents' chairman an emotional, confidential letter that accused him of behaving irresponsibly and doing "singular damage" to the Berkeley campus.

Berdahl and other UC and Berkeley officials have strongly defended its admissions practices, and have criticized Moores' report, particularly for its focus on the SAT.

Critics, including UC Regent Ward Connerly and fellow conservatives, argue that the more flexible standards may be an attempt to get around the state's ban on consideration of race or gender in public institutions.

Some students strongly disagreed with his position.

This report is "another way to question whether students of color are deserving to be at a four-year institution of higher education," said Taina Gomez, 22, a senior Latin American studies major and the student government executive vice president.

"It's unfair to stigmatize these students."

Kerrie Hudson, a 21-year-old African American studies major, said the SAT and high grade point averages cannot predict who will succeed.

"Some people might come here with that 4.0 and that perfect SAT score and they wouldn't be able to survive here," she said. "It's all about survival."

She had a 2.9 high school grade point average, she said, and a 1020 on the SAT. "And I'm graduating," she said. "I'm going to grad school."

But views expressed by students and faculty members are often more nuanced. Indeed, several of those who voiced the most support for the comprehensive review policy and were critical of Moores' report for its reliance on the SAT also said they had been surprised, even troubled, to learn that students who had scored so low on the test had been admitted.

Asuni said that such students might have a tough time -- at least at first. "I don't think initially they'd be ready, but there's a lot of resources on campus," she said.

Some students found little that was surprising in what they had heard about Moores' report, saying that they always assumed that the broader guidelines would allow in some students with lower test scores.

Ellynore Florendo, 19, a junior who is double-majoring in biology and psychology, said she tends not to worry about admissions policies -- "After I got in, I was like, 'I don't care how they let people in.' '' Still, she thought that the reported scores were too low for Berkeley.

"The difference between, say, a 1500 and maybe like a 1300, that's reasonable," Florendo said. "But a 1500 and a 600? That's ridiculous."

Hernandez reported from Berkeley and Trounson from Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Times Articles