Affirmative Action, the Stealth Version

Editor’s Note: This article incorporates part of an article written by this author that was published in Human Events on January 14, 2009.

The University of California Board of Regents struck a stealthy blow for re-introducing racial preferences to the state’s university admissions on Thursday. The major changes the Regents unanimously approved (with one abstention) effectively undercut the current law against using race as a factor without directly addressing race.

In 1996, the people of California clearly chose to end affirmative action—the use of racial preferences to address demographic disparities—by voting Proposition 209 into law via the referendum process. The proposition prohibited the use of race as a factor in such activities as hiring and university admissions. Instead, it promotes a standard of equal opportunity. Accordingly, the University of California (UC) system established specific criteria for admission and accepted those who performed the best according to those criteria, regardless of their demographic group.

Yet many in the California academic establishment favor a different definition of what’s fair—instead of equal opportunity, they favor a standard of equal outcomes. This means giving preferential treatment to ethnic groups whose representation does not equal their demographic share of society (when ethnicity is ignored as a factor). At the Regents’ meeting, the UC faculty senate members who crafted the new policies openly declared that one of the major goals was to ensure greater racial “diversity,” in defiance of Prop 209.

A statement issued by the University of California at Davis College Republicans said, “today’s approval of the proposal proves to us that the UC Board of Regents will stop at nothing to achieve their desired diversity quota, even if it comes at the cost of the entire California education system.”

It was not the Regents, however, who were behind the new policies. It was the faculty senate and UC system president Mark Yudof who proposed the policies and controlled the debate (of which there was little). The Board of Regents instead resembled jellyfish rather than Machiavellian social engineers.

The ease with which the faculty senate were able to steamroll the proposals past the Regents suggests that the system’s governance is deeply flawed—it was apparent during the committee meeting that many of the Regents only had a dim grasp of what the proposals were, let alone any of the more subtle implications.

One regent actually admitted that he did not understand the changes, but added that the faculty senate “are the professionals” and that they seemed to “know what they are doing,” so he urged his colleagues to vote for the changes. (Obviously, this man was not appointed to the Regents’ for his analytical abilities nor his independent spirit.)

While the new policies’ complexity proved to be a high hurdle for the Regents, the three major effects are readily apparent. They are:

  1.  Elevating the role of high school class rank as an admissions criterion.
  2. Reducing the importance of standardized tests. The requirement to take two SAT II subject tests will be eliminated, because they and the SAT I reasoning tests are so strongly correlated that both are often unnecessary. The role of the SAT I tests will be also diminished.
  3. Greater reliance on “comprehensive” or “holistic” reviews that include highly subjective, non-academic criteria such as “life experiences,” greater importance for many students than before.

Although key supporters of the proposals claim that changing the ethnic composition of the UC student body was not a basis for their action, the elevation of class rank as an admissions factor is clearly intended to side-step race-blind policies. The University of Texas system made class rank the central element of its admission policy—to address a drop in racial diversity—after affirmative action was declared illegal. This policy change deliberately favors students from low-income school districts likely to include high percentages of favored minorities. It falsely suggests that the top nine percent of students at the worst school in the state are academically equivalent to the top nine percent of students at the best school.

Ward Connerly, a former president of the Board of Regents who spearheaded the successful campaign to pass Prop 209, said, “in this case, the faculty senate is trying to devise a system that will admit more students from low-income and underperforming high schools, which will translate into more black and Latino students.”

Advocates for the changes focused their defense on the many worthy applicants currently rejected for failing to meet technical requirements, of which the SAT II subject tests are the most notable. Mark M. Rashid is an engineering professor at UC-Davis who headed the UC faculty senate while the changes were first proposed to the Regents. He said in January that the main reason for the new policies are that the old requirements “exclude thousands of high-achieving CA-resident students from UC, while simultaneously guaranteeing admission to many others whose academic achievements are more modest than some of those excluded.”

While this is true, proponents did not simply remove the SAT II requirement. Had they done so, the talented students added to the applicant pool would raise the minimum SAT scores and grade point averages needed for admission in most cases. A UC administration document from the September Regents meeting revealed the political motives of the faculty for not stopping there—it warned that making only this one change would “lead to severely negative consequences for the makeup of the applicant pool…”

“Negative consequences” meant higher acceptance rates for applicants from good schools where the majority of students are motivated and the test scores are high. Such students are likely to be whites (whose University of California representation matches their share of the population) or Asian-Americans (already demographically overrepresented in the UC system). Apparently, diversity bean-counters are not satisfied with diversity alone—they seek a student body with precise percentages of ethnic groups that meet their political needs.

The explanations and rhetoric of the faculty senate members at the meeting seemed to be intentionally misleading. Rashid’s claim that “the new policies increase opportunity for all groups” is an example of how the changes were crafted with the defense against certain criticism in mind. It is true that more students will be “eligible” for admission—the pool of potential applicants will be increased by over 50 percent. But there will be no increase in the number actually admitted to the system, and in the final analysis, some groups will benefit and some groups will have their chances to attend a UC school diluted by inclusion of all the extra applicants.

To suggest that there will be an increase in opportunity for applicants who are less likely to be accepted is nothing more than duplicitous double-talk. Yet the unanimous vote suggests that this type of faculty-concocted pseudo-evidence went right over the heads of most Regents. Such procedural fog-factor is a common tactic used to get around the very clear and understandable mandate of Proposition 209.

UCLA economics professor Tim Groseclose has inside knowledge of how diversity proponents achieve their goals without appearing to acknowledge race. He recently resigned from his school’s faculty admissions committee in protest of the committee leadership’s efforts to stack the deck with application reviewers who were likely to identify with applicants from underrepresented minorities. Because minority applicants often reveal their race in essays, the sympathetic reviewers are more likely to give them better assessments than they would non-minority applicants.

Groseclose said of the new rules, “The proposed system will place less reliance on objective factors, such as grades and SAT scores, and more reliance on subjective factors, which students typically reveal in application essays.”

He added that the change to more subjective decision-making will “invite mischief.”

The real damage is often hidden in such implementation details. And, considering the ruthlessness of the faculty senate and the rubber-stamp nature of the Board of Regents, the new policies are likely to be only a single iteration in a series of changes that eventually leave Proposition 209 completely toothless and ineffective. Instead of a move to “greater fairness,” as Rashid claims, these changes will perpetuate the divisive policy of government preferring one race over another.

Rather than ushering in a “post-racial” period when people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” (to quote Martin Luther King) —the new policies are nothing more than a cold political ploy pitting demographic groups against each other to forward an unsavory agenda.