Do you remember the famous line from the movie “Jaws?”
“Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water . . .”
You might have thought that seniors at our high schools who were applying to top-tier colleges in the University of California system would be judged on their grades, board scores and nonscholastic accomplishments. Sure, some applicants who were athletic standouts in their high schools might well be accepted, even with lower grades and board scores. They might get generous scholarships, as well.
What they won’t get is an invitation to join the freshman class at the University of California, Berkeley or UCLA or other top public universities – based solely on their race.
It’s been 18 years since California voters passed Proposition 209, which outlawed the use of racial preferences. Until 1996, the notion prevailed that diversity in the makeup of the student body was a goal in itself. In the interest of diversity and “fairness,” unofficial “quotas” – although they were not called that – prevailed when deciding which students to accept and which were refused.
The result? Within a few years, Asian-Americans made up half the freshman classes at UC Berkeley and UCLA, while the number of black students dropped sharply. The percentage of Hispanic students held steady, which meant that admissions did not keep up with their growth in the population.
To be fair, the definition of “merit” was broadened to include athletic skills, which meant that a sports star with even subpar grades would not only be admitted, but be actively recruited. But unless an applicant had a sports pedigree, admissions committees were not allowed to consider anything other than grades in making their decisions.
So who were the so-called winners and losers after Proposition 209 became law?
The winners were clearly Asian-Americans, for one simple reason: They had better grades on average than other ethnic group applicants. What’s more, whether by desire, family discipline or culture, Asian American students did far more homework every night than other groups.
So is the issue settled? Can California’s top public universities be forbidden to use race when deciding who’s in and who’s out? Maybe, maybe not.
Sacramento legislators came close to putting an “updated” Proposition 209 on the ballot. It would once again allow race to be used as an admission factor, as it was pre-1996. But pressure from Asian-American groups killed what the San Francisco Chronicle called a “needed and sensible change to rebalance university admissions.”
The updated Proposition 209, if approved by the voters, would bring us back to the good old days of racial preferences. While it’s true that Proposition 209 sharply reduced the number of black students at UC Berkeley and UCLA, is the answer really to lower standards? If more students with lower grades were to take the same courses as those who were better qualified, would the nature of the instruction have to be changed?
One sensitive conclusion we could draw is that many colleges and universities have adjusted their course offerings to accommodate those with lesser academic skills. Thus, we have Chicano/Chicana studies, African-American studies and even what they call “sexual diversity studies” around the nation. The argument might be made that for years, all the course offerings were white male studies, especially directed to European-descended Christians.
The Chronicle editorial page expresses “shame” that two of the legislators who fought a replay of Proposition 209 were San Francisco Democrats. They were both Asian-Americans – state Sen. Leland Yee and Assemblyman Phil Ting. It’s no surprise that they were against any change in the law that would limit educational opportunities for their constituents.
Bud Stevenson, a retired stockbroker, lives in Fairfield. Reach him at [email protected]