When Racial Preferences Fell at UC

Editor’s note: The Pope Center now welcomes readers’ comments, which may be added at the end of this article (and other articles).

California’s vote to abolish racial preferences in 1996 (Proposition 209) still outrages many people who believe that such preferences are essential. “How can we engineer a just society without using preferences?” they ask.

Equal Opportunity In Higher Education: The Past And Future Of California’s Proposition 209 is a collection of essays reflecting that outrage. With one notable exception, the essays, policy comments, and the foreword all bewail the fate of “diversity” in the university and state college systems following passage of Prop. 209, which prohibited public agencies from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in carrying out their policies.

Readers looking for diverse viewpoints will be sadly disappointed since, ironically but not surprisingly, there is no diversity between the covers of this book. With the lonely exception of the policy comment of Peter Schmidt, who covers affirmative action issues for the Chronicle of Higher Education, all the contributors regard Prop. 209’s requirement of colorblind equal treatment as an affront to equality—an “obstacle” to be overcome. That is because the authors equate equal opportunity with racial and ethnic proportionality.

Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, sets the tone in his foreword, quoting with approval University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman’s lament that “a growing resistance to affirmative action poses a daunting challenge to the mission of public universities across the country.” This is the same Robert Birgeneau who asserted in an April 2005 Los Angeles Times piece that “[i]nstead of ensuring nondiscrimination, Proposition 209 has created an environment that many students of color view as discriminatory.” In short, the Prop. 209’s obligation to treat all students without regard to their race or ethnicity is regarded as discriminatory by students who would previously have received preferences because of their race. Both Coleman and Birgeneau agree with them.

Several months ago Birgeneau told the San Francisco Chronicle that “the message the university is sending to its students … is that ‘We no longer can live in our own world surrounded by people who are just like us.’” Notice how he majestically divides the world into us and them. The “message” here, whether Birgeneau intended it or not, is that they — the black, the Hispanic, the gay, the community college graduate — are different from us, the people who naturally populate places like UC Berkeley.

Special efforts must be made at “inclusiveness” to let them into our world, because it short-changes us not to be exposed to them. They, after all, would receive whatever benefits diversity is supposed to offer at less selective institutions.

The “diversity benefits us more than them” argument appears in several of the essays here. For example, Susan Wilbur argues in Chapter 4 that

The loss of diversity incurred [sic] by 209 may have a more negative effect on the educational opportunities of those who attend the UCs than it does on those who do not. To the extent that a diverse student body is an educational good, UC is poorer for the absence of large shares of African American and Latino students.

This lamentation about the loss of diversity pervades the volume, but none of the essays in an otherwise heavily quantified volume makes any effort to define the diversity that is lost, much less to quantify it beyond skin color counts. Diversity here, as in so many similar tributes to it, is like the emperor’s new clothes: lavishly praised but unseen.

All of the essays and comments (again, except for Schmidt’s) assail the impact of Prop. 209, and most attempt to describe that impact with an array of charts and statistics. Some of the numbers they use, however, are resistant to their dire conclusions. It is easy enough to be alarmed by the fact, as Tongshan Chan and Heather Rose are, that “[i]mmediately after Proposition 209 took effect the elite campuses admitted 40% fewer URM (under-represented minority) students.”

That decline, of course, is a good measure of how extreme the pre-209 preferences were. But Chan and Rose are forced to recognize that by 2008, the admit rate for under-represented minorities at Berkeley and UCLA had climbed substantially (to just 17 percent below pre-209 levels) and overall UC admissions of those minorities “had grown 116% from their 1994 levels, whereas non-URM admissions had grown only 72%.”

At the elite institutions, they note, under-represented minority students “made dramatic improvements in their graduation rates.” Across the University of California system the initial decline in under-represented minority enrollees “was reversed in the ensuing decade.” In 1997, the last pre-209 entering class, 18 percent of new freshmen were under-represented minorities; by 2008, that percentage reached 24 percent. “Systemwide,” they conclude, “it would appear that Proposition 209 had very little impact.”

It’s hard to perceive much of a problem, but Chan and Rose remain dissatisfied. “Most concerning,” they write,

is that approximately 20 percent of students at these campuses were URM, yet nearly half of graduating high school students are URM.… [i]f these institutions are to reflect the diversity of high school graduates in the state, they must do a better job of enrolling and graduating URM youth.

Do they really mean that the only way for the University of California system to “do a better job” is for each campus to be a demographic mirror of the state? If so, that would require a quota system to reduce the current percentage of Asian students admitted to Berkeley (over 40 percent) down to 12 percent—their proportion of California’s population.

That would better “reflect diversity,” but why would it be good to keep some of the sharpest students out of the University of California campuses?

The version of racial equality promoted by the book explicitly requires unequal treatment based on race—a variant of destroying the village in order to save it. “Without the benefit of affirmative action,” the editors write, “we subject minority students to a much more demanding standard than that to which we subject their white advantaged peers.” (Note the assumption that all whites are “advantaged.”) The only way for admissions to be “fair and legitimate,” they write, is by “placing a thumb on the scales in favor of disadvantaged groups.”

The book’s authors appear to believe that the primary purpose of higher education is to provide and produce diversity. Mary Sue Coleman refers with pride to the fact that “within 14 hours” of Michigan voters’ passage of Proposition 2 in November 2006, which mirrored California’s Prop. 209, “our deans and executive officers joined me at the heart of our campus for a rally to assure students of our commitment to diversity.”

In her speech at that rally, Coleman vowed that she would “not allow this university to go down the path of mediocrity,” presumably her view of what happened at the University of California. “I will not stand by,” Coleman concluded, “while the very heart and soul of this great university is threatened. We are Michigan and we are diversity!”

How sad that the leaders of so many great, or once-great, universities believe that pigmentary diversity defines the mission and even constitutes the “heart and soul,” the very identity, of their institutions.

Equally sad are their ideas that racial equality can be attained by practicing racial discrimination and that it is necessary to lower the standard for some students based on race in order to get the “right” URM percentages.

Perhaps the most maddening thing about this book, given the academic pedigrees of the authors, is that it accepts as unvarnished truth shibboleths about “diversity” that have been torn to shreds (such as the notion that students from certain minority groups necessarily add different perspectives that greatly enrich the campus) and ignores strong arguments against their position (such as that it hurts students to place them in schools where they are academically overmatched).

Finally, overweening devotion to diversity and the racial preference policies it requires, puts university leaders and their academic supporters like those represented in this volume at odds with a substantial majority of the taxpaying citizens on whom public universities depend. As voters have demonstrated not only in California but also in Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, and Arizona, they believe that Americans should be treated “without regard” to race.

Nothing in this book proves them wrong.