Affirmative Actions' California Afterlife

For all the controversy it has generated, the decision of the University of California regents to prohibit race and gender preferences in admissions is likely to become better known for its unintended consequences than for what its backers said they meant to do.

For Governor Pete Wilson, of course, it was an effort to jump-start a moribund presidential campaign, and for the moment it paid off handsomely in a windfall of free media attention. Wilson, as one shrewd observer pointed out, is a colorless politician who derives far more political juice from the negative charge of his opponents than from any passion he can create on his own behalf. On that score, both Jesse Jackson and the Clinton administration were eager volunteers, the first by vowing to go to jail, if necessary, to stop passage of the regents' resolution, the other by threatening Justice Department investigations (subsequently withdrawn) to determine whether Wilson and the board had violated federal civil rights laws. If anything could have made Wilson's day, and his week, it was Leon Panetta going on Face the Nation talking tough about the possibility of withholding federal funds from California.

The campuses are likely to be less gleeful at this turn of events. Not since Ronald Reagan got his regents to fire University of California President Clark Kerr back in 1969 has a governor of California so blatantly muscled the board--not to mention the university administration and the faculty, both vigorous defenders of affirmative action--or used the institution so baldly for a political purpose. As such, the decision could remind the system's 8,000 professors, as almost nothing has for a generation, that they are something more than a collection of self-absorbed specialists connected only by a common paycheck.

How they will respond to what even some of the opponents of race preferences regard as an insult to the principle of shared university governance--meaning faculty power and prerogatives--is still uncertain. What is certain is that within two weeks after the regents' action, the e-mail tom-toms were sounding--from Davis to Berkeley, from Santa Cruz to San Diego, and back--about organizing a collective response. UCLA's crusty chancellor, Charles Young, was even musing about resigning his position. One can dismiss that as bluster, but if there is still any strong sense of faculty prerogative, this could bring a showdown with the governor and regents. It's already clear (and hardly surprising) that the regents' vote has made it far harder for them to find a strong candidate to replace the retiring Jack Peltason as the university's next president.

And, of course, it could generate outbursts from students as well. Jackson managed to bring out only a few hundred demonstrators to protest at the decisive regents meeting--many of them aging 1960s radicals like Mario Savio, famous in days of yore for his leadership of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement--but July is hardly the time to rouse the campuses. The resumption of classes this fall will provide a far better indication. Last spring, Young in effect predicted campus riots if race preferences were abolished.

But the biggest and most lasting consequence is likely to be more widespread, profound and, at least initially, more subtle, and that's a major reexamination of the broader assumptions of university admissions practices, both at the University of California and at other institutions. California is thus likely to be at the forefront of a debate on the role of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), lately renormed and renamed, that has been a staple for admission to selective institutions since the 1940s. In recent years, the SAT has come under increasing attack, both in the courts and, more particularly, from a foundation-funded organization in Cambridge called FairTest, which argues that the SAT and all similar multiple choice tests are biased against women and minorities and, on the whole, not predictive of success in college beyond (perhaps) the first year.

FairTest's only real evidence is in the results. Women, blacks, and Hispanics tend to do less well on the SAT than whites, Asians, and males (or at least white males) with similar high school records. That those numbers could just as easily reflect bias in favor of disadvantaged groups in school grading (as is surely the case for girls in elementary schools) has not muted the argument or the pressure on the universities to reduce their emphasis on the SAT or abandon it altogether. The regents' resolution not only prohibits the use of race in admissions but specifies that the university increase the percentage of undergraduates admitted solely on the basis of "academic achievement" from 40 percent to at least 50 percent. So if the university can't admit students under nonacademic criteria, it will face immense pressure to diversify its student body by altering the academic criteria. This probably means de-emphasizing the SAT with more flexible measures.

California, with its ethnically diverse population, will have to do contortions if its prestige campuses are to retain a good representation of blacks and Hispanics. If, as university administrators have predicted, the regents' decision threatens to produce precisely that result, the pressure to change the rules may come not just from blacks and Hispanics, but from whites as well. At few public universities in this country is undergraduate admission as competitive as it is at Berkeley and UCLA, and thus none where race is more of an issue. Nonetheless, the University of California's prestige and bellwether status in American higher education may turn the regents' vote into the best present FairTest has ever gotten.


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Beyond the SAT question, the decision opens broader issues for the University of California and other institutions, particularly such selective state universities as Virginia, Texas, and Michigan: How, in a democracy, does one choose intellectual elites? What's the trade-off between access and standards? California's master plan for higher education makes the top 12.5 percent of the state's high school graduates eligible for the University of California; the top 33 percent are eligible for the California State University, and almost anyone can attend one of the state's 100-plus community colleges.

But the formula for determining the top 12.5 percent--grades in major high school academic subjects, SAT scores, and scores on the College Board achievement tests--was not handed down to Moses on the mountain. It's arbitrary; if any element is changed, or if others (rank in high school class, for example) are added, the mix--racial, social, economic, geographic--changes as well, in some instances radically. Whether that ultimately will generate better academic standards or only more politically defensible ones is anybody's guess. Wilson made it plain just how political public university admission policies could become.

To be sure, all the tricks that an institution can play with admissions are relatively minor in determining enrollment and standards next to broader social and economic policies. In states like California, the quality and standards of the K-12 schools and questions about how many students should be accommodated and at what cost (and by whom paid) are determined far more by expansive and increasingly costly prison policies and by the likely shrinkage in federal subsidies for student grants and loans than by any other factor. Pete Wilson's vigorous support of three-strikes laws, which are driving prison costs through the roof, will have far more impact on California's youth than anything he's done regarding college admissions. In California's case, moreover, the affirmative action fight has taken attention from a whole set of more substantive issues in higher education--issues concerning academic priorities, productivity, funding, the trade-off between teaching and research--that have been pressing in on the state's institutions.

But that will not reduce the symbolic power of the regents' act or its consequences for higher education. We will see if it generates any new determination to address the problems of the dreadful K-12 schools that many students--not all of them racial minorities--are forced to attend. If the University of California's claims are right that it admits almost no undergraduate who is academically ineligible under its admissions standards--that preferences are only given only in admission to its most selective campuses--then virtually no one now eligible for the university will be excluded even without race preferences. The only change will be in the branch of the university system a student may attend. That makes the battles over admissions policies--those already fought, those yet to come--look all the more ironic, but it will not make them any less bitter or their ultimate result any more predictable.

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