Regents' shot echoes

January 19, 1996

The story of affirmative action at the University of California is still continuing. The shot fired by the embattled farmers of the American Revolution was heard round the world. The Board of Regents fired their shot on July 20.

The university's nine-campus system became the first to revise affirmative action policies as embodied in freshman admissions and staff and faculty hiring. The decision also made a clumsily handled external search for a new president even more problematical.

Few external contenders cared for the historical honour of being the first university head to dismantle controversial programmes. Once again the regents chose an inside candidate, this time the accomplished chancellor of the "campus of the next century", San Diego.

The national press instantly and predictably pounced. The New York Times was sententious, the Wall Street Journal elated. For the record, the Democrats deplored the regents' decisions while the Republicans were gleeful. President Clinton's chief of staff denounced the outcome as "stupid" and threatened to withdraw federal money.

His intemperate remark was almost immediately cancelled by the White House, for Washington had discovered that upper income minorities were receiving preferential contracts in a programme designed to assist small minority-owned firms. Mend not end, said the chief executive.

Nineteen regents are appointed by California's governor for staggered 12-year terms, and seven, including the governor, are ex officio.

Since Republicans have long controlled the statehouse, members of the board are mainly of the party where affirmative action is unpopular.

Nevertheless, independent positions are held, and the current governor Pete Wilson, a consummate opportunist, was himself once a supporter of "guidelines". But the mood of the state, as well as the nation, is now less hospitable to disguised quotas.

The governor's opening was created by one of his appointees to the board, a highly successful, personable and articulate African-American businessman who maintained that affirmative action was right for the 1970s but wrong for the 1990s.

Mr Wilson's outspoken and well-publicised views brought a media-conscious Jesse Jackson flying to the fateful regents' meeting where, he turned an allotted few minutes into nearly an hour's worth of non-stop theatre, but to no avail.

The suddenness of the event, the camarillo-like manoeuvring, snide public remarks about professors, the shameless political ambitions of the principals and the relative absence of thoughtful discussion on this as well as on many critical university issues at an historical moment made the event disagreeable, unworthy of the "stewards of a priceless public trust", as a highly-informed observer noted on another occasion.

What precisely did the regents achieve, or hope to achieve? Press reports were unhelpful. Friends of mine in Brazil said that news had reached them of the momentous decision to abolish affirmative action, but the regents did no such thing.

They abolished ethnic or racial set-asides in freshman admissions, which may well have existed on some campuses or been quietly implemented on others. They called upon campus leaders to replace these and hiring "goals" with policies supporting strong candidates from lower socio-economic groups irrespective of ethnicity. It is assumed that targeted minorities will appear in these groups.

In the meantime a sizeable number of academic senate members from the nine-campus system are taking a safe route by charging the regents with violating academic freedom.

The representative assembly at UCLA has pompously defended affirmative action as a species of individualised instruction in the tradition of liberal education.

Such claims ring hollow in the age of mass education and academic sub-specialisation. In any case, the regents have full legal and constitutional authority to make policy.

No one knows exactly how to go about designing and implementing a substitute admissions policy, but fat documents are pumped out anyway.

Nor has the media or anyone else publicly mentioned that perhaps up to 40 per cent of the undergraduates on each campus (excepting the medical campus in San Francisco) are really unaffected since they are third-year transfer students for whom admission standards have never been particularly onerous. Fears are rife nonetheless.

Some predict a drastic decline in minorities other than from hugely successful Asian-Californian communities. I think that the overall changes in numbers will be small throughout the system, although single campus adjustments can go up or down. A certain momentum has already been established; and 19th-century Americans generally believe in helping the deserving poor.

A reporter asked me whether a university ought to "lead" public opinion as the regents appear to have done. It is foolish to imagine that universities, so vulnerable to both opinion and government, can shape a public response, especially in a state where a mixed and volatile population and unstable primary institutions exist.

Campus leaders, in anticipation of the outcome of an anti-affirmative action ballot initiative to be held this year, started to rethink their relevant policies even before July, while undoubtedly hoping to retain some aspect of it.

Angry words are continually exchanged, but a new generation of students is largely indifferent. An October day for protest, actually organised by radical members of non-academic staff unions, passed without incident, like the anaemic Chartist uprising in London in 1848.

However, most of the nation's universities have remained cautious. Affirmative action programmes are now regarded as campus "tradition" despite their unpopularity when first introduced.

Defenders are correct in arguing that total gains in relation to the problems of an underclass are modest and instances of reverse discrimination probably minimal.

But the nation is obsessed with the process, and an obsession is unhealthy. Furthermore, the fundamental issue goes beyond cold-blooded opportunism or racial politics.

The issue is virtue rewarded. This belief was a mythos that united Americans around a basic self-understanding. For decades affirmative action messages have been confused and divisive, the electorate increasingly sceptical.

The regents' action would have come sooner or later, but the professors, forgetting their Hamlet, were neither ripe nor ready.

Sheldon Rothblatt is director of the centre for studies in higher education at the University of California, Berkeley.

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