Admission by race under fire

June 16, 1995

A university traditionally seen as the vanguard of change in the United States, the University of California at Berkeley, may be the first to abandon the essence of affirmative action - admitting students on racial grounds.

Berkeley's governing board is next month expected to consider a proposal from black member Ward Connerly to stop admitting students on any other basis than merit. This would affect students who have faced cultural or economic disadvantages or physical disabilities.

The rest of higher education is watching closely because Berkeley, in addition to being a barometer for change, is perhaps the country's most prestigious public university. Its standards are high, but its campus reflects, more than most, the colours of the racial rainbow.

Affirmative action is under attack generally in California. Governor Pete Wilson has issued an executive order sharply curtailing affirmative action in state government. This will not affect higher education, but, for many observers, it is the thin end of a wedge.

For the past decade Berkeley has prided itself on what Americans call "diversity". Today whites make up only 32 per cent of students. The largest single ethnic group on campus is Asian, a label which Americans apply to people of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese extraction.

Mr Connerly, a black businessman from Sacramento, thinks that diversity is important too, but not at the expense of fairness. Admitting students on the basis of race is unfair and discriminatory, he says. A fairer criterion would be socio-economic class, he believes.

"If you start with diversity as the objective in admission you can end up doing some rather undesirable things, which is where we are now," he says.

According to the latest figures, white students admitted in 1994 had a mean grade point average (their grade in high school) of 3.86, out of a possible 4.0.

The figure for Asians was 3.95, for Spanish-speaking students 3.65, and for blacks 3.43.

The gap in Scholastic Assessment Test scores, the test for college-bound youth, was wider. Blacks averaged 994, Hispanic applicants 1,032, whites 1,256 and Asians 1,293, out of a possible 1,600.

One of the interesting features at Berkeley is that the quality of the students has actually risen during the period in which the campus has become more diverse. In 1984, when 60 per cent of Berkeley undergraduates were white, the mean grade point average for incoming students was 3.62, and the mean S.A.T. score was 1,155.

Ten years later, when whites made up only a third of the undergraduates, the mean grade point average was 3.84 and the mean S.A.T. was 1,225.

Such figures lead Berkeley's administrators to call affirmative action a success. The racial breakdown on campus is 39 per cent Asian, 32 per cent white, 14 per cent Hispanic, 6 per cent black, 1 per cent American Indian and 8 per cent other groups or people who did not identify their race.

Those proportions do not exactly reflect representation of ethnic groups in the community at large, but they are thought to be a better reflection of society than if admissions were based solely on test scores.

A report commissioned by Berkeley's governing board has shown that abandoning the race-based policy would lead to a dramatic drop in the number of black and Hispanic students, and an increase in Asians and, marginally, white students.

The issue has led to noisy protest on campus. At a meeting last month when the governing board discussed the matter, 200 student demonstrators objected, and the meeting was temporarily disrupted.

The issue appears to pit black and Hispanic students directly against Asians. For every gain in admissions for blacks and Hispanics, Asians see places lost that they believe should have gone to their ethnic group.

Back in the 1970s, it was whites who complained about admissions at the University of California. The famous lawsuit, which laid the standard for today's policy, involved Allen Bakke who claimed he was denied a place at the University of California at Davis medical school because a space had been reserved for a less-qualified ethnic minority student.

The Supreme Court ruled that race could be taken into account in admissions as long as there were no quotas and as long as race was not the only or primary criterion.

During the 1990s debate about affirmative action has intensified. Some critics say it has contributed to Balkanised campuses with less mixing between ethnic groups. But most higher education experts remain stout defenders.

Those in favour say that no university admits solely on test scores and grades, just as no university admits solely on race. The report prepared for the governing board at Berkeley found that across the University of California system, 40 to 50 per cent fewer blacks would be admitted if admissions were solely on scores and grades.

There would be 5 to 15 per cent fewer Hispanics. The number of Asians would go up between 15 and 25 per cent. The effect would be for Asians to make up more than half the incoming student body.

Using socio-economic status as a criterion would not change the figures because there are so few poor black and Hispanic applicants who have come through the system and are prepared for college.

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