States can’t turn away from inequality

I caught up with a few friends of mine the other day who attend the University of California campuses. When I asked how things were, my friend Ali echoed a common sentiment: “Things are so crazy, with Proposition 209 stuff going on.” He was referring to the student activism about the initiative to remove affirmative action from all state government hiring and college admissions.
Last fall, California voters approved the measure with 54 percent of the vote. Although Proposition 209 still faces legal challenges, a federal court ruled the measure valid a few weeks ago.
I tried to compare the images of rallies and student protests on California campuses with the desert of discussion I’ve heard about Prop. 209 on this campus. Why haven’t people been buzzing about it? It’s a movement happening to someone, somewhere else.
Well, not exactly. A Republican representative from Florida recently said he plans to introduce anti-affirmative action legislation for federal hiring. We’re talking national, now.
And though Minnesota has a reputation for being a liberal state and we like to think we are all politically correct, many states, like Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Texas, are following California’s lead. Eventually, Minnesotans will have to take up the issue, too.
Affirmative action is difficult to talk about because we’re suddenly talking about race and gender — abstract and deeply personal issues based upon personal characteristics we cannot change. Still, the University community needs to talk about affirmative action because we still face threats to student access.
Last year as a reporter, I covered rallies and meetings which were in response to plans to close General College, one of the most racially diverse colleges on campus. I’m not in General College, but I remember one distinct thing about talking to students and professors there: I saw a refreshingly diverse student body and faculty that I hadn’t seen anywhere else on campus.
I remember sitting there in a meeting at General College, looking around at the students’ faces. All I kept thinking was, “Why are my classes so full of white students and these classes obviously aren’t?” And the University administration wanted to just shut this door and say, “Well, hell, we saved a lot of money.”
The biggest problem with the push to close General College and approve Prop. 209 is that they both threaten to cut off venues of access to minority students. Prop. 209 proposes to cut off a big channel for students without insuring our society won’t return to its former self.
Affirmative action isn’t an exact science and it has its problems. However, if we eliminate access, we are seriously threatening opportunity.
Affirmative action is based on opportunity. It ensures that even though our society by historical structure is not equal, we make it is as fair as it can be.
Consider this: Some universities and colleges, both public and private, still give preferences to children of alumni, especially donors. I remember filling out an application to a private university that devoted a half-page to listing one’s alumni relatives. For some Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale, a lot of times daddy’s connections can get you a dorm room key.
My memory may be fading, but I believe I learned in high school history class that blacks weren’t admitted to some universities until the 1960s. That’s only 30 years ago. Your grandparents probably never attended college with black students.
So, how many black alumni — or any other underrepresented group — does that add to the proportion? I never hear people calling for an end to all alumni preferences.
I went to high school with a girl named Sandy. Sandy and I had Spanish class together for a few years. I don’t think she took one advanced placement course in high school, but she was a bright girl.
Sandy applied to the University of California–Los Angeles and didn’t get admitted. Basically, if you don’t have at least a 3.8 grade point average, you have a tough time getting into the school. But Sandy’s dad was a very important man who knew another very important man over at UCLA. After many phone calls, Sandy finally got a fax saying that she would be admitted.
I don’t have Sandy’s grades in front of me, but I can tell you that usually people don’t get denied admission to a school like UCLA and then get reconsidered. It takes powerful people to pull strings.
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times in April 1996 found that more than 200 undergraduate applicants initially coded for rejection to UCLA were admitted after being handed over for review by VIPs. The 1,300 VIP requests were made by alumni donors, state legislators and high-ranking UC officials, including Prop. 209 proponents Governor Pete Wilson and UC Regent Ward Connerly.
The Times also found that California–Berkeley has had a five-member committee to review requests made by high-ranking VIPs since the 1980s. At Berkeley, dozens of VIP applicants were admitted despite grade point averages below 3.5. The average grade point average for freshmen in 1993 was 3.8.
Days after the Times article came out, Connerly and Wilson said they don’t support VIP reconsideration. And despite records that prove they made their own special “preference” recommendations, they focus on ending “preferences” for minorities.
OK, don’t you want to scream now?
The evident contradiction in how California officials have handled affirmative action has turned off many students.
Now they’re wondering why the schools are experiencing a major chilling effect.
There was a 22 percent decline in the number of minority applicants to the UC’s five medical schools last fall, despite a national increase in applicants across the board. The sting is also spreading to the undergraduate level.
Although the University of California campuses had an overall 1.6 percent increase in undergraduate applications last fall, there was an overall decline for minority applicants for the second straight year. The decline statistics were 8.2 percent for African-American applicants, 3.7 for Latinos and 9 percent for Native Americans. The Asian-American applicants increased 10 percent, but at some campuses, like the University of California–Irvine, Asian students make up 50 percent of the student population.
To these statistics, Prop. 209 proponent and UC Regent Ward Connerly said, “Just because we don’t give you preference doesn’t mean you’re not welcome.” Hmm, with a paternalistic statement like that, I think I’d put my $40 application fee somewhere else, too.
The sad thing is that these statistics are just the beginning. Texas law schools have reported a similar decline (Texas is considering a similar measure). UCLA and Berkeley released reports last fall predicting that the number of underrepresented students at those campuses would decline by 50 to 70 percent if Prop. 209 went into effect.
I can’t imagine what the University of Minnesota would look like with a 50 to 70 percent decline in minority students. If anything, I think the University is starved of much representation.
I don’t know much about how affirmative action works in college admissions because it’s something of an inside decision. But I do know that we need affirmative action in some form to make sure our classrooms represent the same people as our community.
Wide ethnic and racial representation in the classrooms is a vital part of college life. Why? Because I know that I’ve learned more about African-Americans, Native Americans, homosexuals — you name it — from people I’ve met at the University than in anything I will ever read in a book. And I hope my grandchildren will be able to say the same thing.

Sara Goo’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily. She welcomes e-mail at [email protected]
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