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Meritocracy and the University of California

by  David A. Lehrer

July 12, 2010 | 1:51 pm

The following op/ed appeared in this morning’s Los Angeles Times, we’d appreciate your thoughts.
                                           
                                                  Meritocracy at UC
                                              By David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks*

The next few weeks will see renewed interest in a 14-year-old initiative that was, in its day, among the most hotly contested California ballot measures ever, Proposition 209. It prohibits the state from discriminating against or giving preferences to anyone on the basis of “race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.” The measure was approved 54% to 45%. It was tested in the courts, and its constitutionality was affirmed by the California Supreme Court in 2000.

But another legal challenge to 209 was mounted earlier this year, specifically to allow the University of California to use affirmative-action criteria for admissions, as it did before the proposition passed in 1996.

The author of 209, Ward Connerly, is seeking to intervene in the case because of his fear that neither the university (whose officials have, on occasion, called for the repeal of 209) nor Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown (whose office filed a brief with the California Supreme Court opining that 209 violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment) will vigorously defend the measure. Connerly’s motion is scheduled to be heard this month.

As proponents of Proposition 209 in 1996, we could only have hoped that the “underrepresented” minorities at the center of the debate would ultimately be admitted to the UC - without preferences - in numbers approximating their rate of admission with the benefit of preferences. Our argument then, as now, was that granting preferences on the basis of race and ethnicity was wrong and that, ultimately, in a bias-free environment, students would figure out what had to be done and would qualify for admission on their merits. That argument was right.

Here are the facts:

The number of minority admissions to the University of California for this fall - without the benefit of preferences - exceeds that of 1996, in absolute numbers and, more important, as a percentage of all “admits.” The numbers are, in almost every category, quite staggering

.

Latino students have gone from 15.4% (5,744 students) of freshman undergraduate admissions in 1996 to 23% (14,081) in 2010 (a 145% increase). Asian students have gone from 29.8% (11,085) of the freshman admits to 37.47% (22,877). Native American admits have declined slightly, from 0.9% to 0.8%, but their absolute number increased, from 360 to 531. African American admits have gone from 4% (1,628) to 4.2% (2,624), a modest gain in percentage but a 60% increase in numbers of freshmen admitted.
The only major category that declined in percentage terms was whites, who went from 44% (16,465) of the freshmen admits to 34% (20,807).

But the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, which filed this year’s lawsuit, finds little solace in these data: “The percentage of Latina/o, black and Native American students in the UC as a whole has not kept pace with the rising percentage of those groups among high school graduates of the state,” the suit says.

That argument alone reveals the agenda of the coalition. They seem to believe that the percentage of minority high school graduates in the state—without regard to SATs, GPAs or overall academic achievement - is what should determine the makeup of the admissions to the university. But the truth is that qualifications, not demographics, should determine admissions.

One subtext of the coalition’s complaint is that as a result of Proposition 209, the “flagship” UC campuses, UC Berkeley and UCLA, have become elitist, segregated institutions, out of reach for minorities and the poor, who are relegated to the “newer, less-selective schools.”

It is true that UC Berkeley and UCLA have fewer African American freshman admits in 2010 than pre-Proposition 209. Compared with 1996, at Berkeley the difference is 572 to 392; and at UCLA, 606 to 435. - but it’s not because those campuses aren’t reaching out to the disadvantaged or are enclaves of elitism.

In fact, at Berkeley and UCLA, more than 30% of undergraduates are Pell Grant recipients whose parents’ incomes fall below $45,000 annually. Overall, the University of California enrolled a higher percentage of Pell Grant recipients than any of its public or private competitive institutions nationwide. This fall, 39.4% of incoming freshman at the university will come from low-income families, 38% from families where neither parent has a four-year degree.

Moreover, according to the U.S. News & World Report rankings, four of the 25 most diverse among the so-called national universities are UC campuses, including UCLA (No. 11), Berkeley (No. 16) and San Diego (No. 22). In terms of economic diversity among “top-ranked” national universities, U.S. News ranks UCLA and Berkeley No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

In fact, the University of California is an unequaled example of a world-class institution of higher learning maintaining its preeminent status while also addressing the needs of disadvantaged students who have academic potential, a record of success and a desire to succeed - not an easy task, especially in economically tough times. This year’s admits have an average GPA of 3.84.

In reality, despite the coalition’s lawsuit, the principles that underlay Proposition 209 have proved themselves correct. The belief that minorities could and would succeed in a system free of discrimination and preferential biases is true. The presence of minorities and disadvantaged students throughout UC is vindication of a traditional American concept: The state should not discriminate against anyone or give preferences to anyone on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color or sex, a concept Californians understand, enacted into law and are now reaping the benefits of.
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*David A. Lehrer is the president and Joe R. Hicks the vice president of Community Advocates Inc., a human relations organization based in Los Angeles that is chaired by former Mayor Richard Riordan.

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