Black Republican stalks fat-cat entry favours

August 7, 1998

WARD Connerly, the black conservative who has done more than anyone else to end special admissions in the United States for minority students, has turned his attention to the children of the wealthy and well-connected.

He has been publicly prodding the University of California's board of regents to stop back-door admissions of students backed by "fat cats or friends in high places". The board, to which he was appointed in 1993, squashed his first attempt last year.

But it finally buckled under the pressure last month and passed a resolution stating that "admissions motivated by concern for financial, political, or other such benefit to the university do not have a place in the admissions process".

The regents added the caveat that "if chancellors elect to admit students outside of established criteria, the academic senate should be consulted".

The back door, it appeared, was still open.

US universities routinely run large-scale fund-raising operations. But the unspoken quid pro quo may be the concessions offered major donors or generous alumni when it comes to admitting their children or relatives.

In elite private universities it is thought such practices are common. But at such public institutions as the University of California, they are controversial.

In California, an investigation by the Los Angeles Times reported that between 1980 and 1996 the University of California campus at Los Angeles gave "VIP set-asides" to as many as 200 students who were initially denied places.

In 1997, the elite University of California at Berkeley said it was accepting nine students who had failed to meet its usual admission standards but had ties to wealthy donors.

Then-chancellor Chang-Lin Tien defended the admissions as "critical" to "the institutional interest". Such students admitted at UC Berkeley and UCLA included the nephew of a Saudi Arabian oil minister and a student recommended by the wealthy Milken Family Foundation.

"I think it is fundamentally wrong for a public agency to be giving some sort of preference to people, just because they are wealthy or have connections," Mr Connerly told The THES.

"We have gone to a system in which we value the merits of an individual, not admitting people on the basis of skin colour or how they spell their last name. If we are going to do that, than it is ever more imperative that we eliminate privileges based on connections.

"It is relatively few in number, but there is a principle involved. Even if it is only one person, that principle is being violated. In many government agencies, if you let a person go to the front of the line because they slip a few coins to an institution, that's bribery.

"Supporters of the system made the argument that 'if we took in a million from one donor, that's going to provide scholarships and financial aid for other people'". But the real reason, he said, was that "administrators like to wheel and deal to reward prominent people. It pumps up somebody's ego".

There was no evidence that it was actually bringing in money, he claimed.

Mr Connerly was recently appointed by his old friend, Republican California governor Pete Wilson, to head the Republican party's election fund-raising in the state. He has used his job on the board of regents to make himself a rising star on the national conservative scene.

But he alienated some long-time Republican allies last autumn when he backed the University of California's plan to extend health benefits to gay partners of employees.

His supporters call him a visionary, critics a divisive figure who has used his race to close doors for ethnic minorities.

He became a prominent yet deeply controversial figure after leading the campaign to end affirmative action in California, particularly its universities, which sent ripples across the country.

He has recently set his sights on the ethnic studies programmes now in place at many US universities, suggesting they are of questionable academic value and tend to resegregate campuses.

But another target, he says, is "legacy admits", where the children of UC graduates living outside California get eligibility preferences.

Black and Hispanic admissions at the University of California's top campuses and professional schools have fallen sharply since affirmative action programmes, which helped them get places, were abolished.

"This is one way of saying to my supporters and my opponents I'm an equal opportunity kind of guy," said Connerly, "and I don't pay favours when it comes to people's dollars."

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