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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

California Passed an Anti-Affirmative Action Law, and Colleges Ignored It

Education Higher Ed, Affirmative Action

Editor's note: This piece was adapted from a new book by Heather Mac Donald, The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture (available now).

In 1996, Californians voted to ban race and gender preferences in government and education. Ten years later, the chancellor of the state-funded University of California at Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau, announced a new vice chancellor for equity and inclusion, charged with making Berkeley more “inclusive” and “less hostile” to “underrepresented minority . . . groups.” This move became just another expression of the University of California’s unrelenting resistance to the 1996 voter initiative, in every way possible short of patent violation.

California shows the power, and the limitations, of the crusade for a color-blind America led by Ward Connerly, architect of the 1996 antipreference initiative. Without a doubt, Proposition 209, as that measure is called, has cut the use of race quotas in the Golden State’s government. But it has also exposed the contempt of the elites — above all, in education — for the popular will. “Diversity” — meaning socially engineered racial proportionality — is now the official ideology of the education behemoth, and California shows what happens when that ideology comes into conflict with the law.

““Diversity” — meaning socially engineered racial proportionality — is now the official ideology of the education behemoth... ”

After Prop. 209’s passage, UC Berkeley, like the rest of the UC system, “went through a depression figuring out what to do,” says Robert Laird, Berkeley’s pro-preferences admissions director from 1993 to 1999. The system’s despair was understandable. It had relied on wildly unequal double standards to achieve its smattering of “underrepresented minorities,” especially at Berkeley and UCLA, the most competitive campuses. The median SAT score of blacks and Hispanics in Berkeley’s liberal-arts programs was 250 points lower (on a 1600-point scale) than that of whites and Asians. This test-score gap was hard to miss in the classroom. Renowned Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle, who judges affirmative action “a disaster,” recounted that “they admitted people who could barely read.”

“There was a huge dropout rate of affirmative-action admits in my classes by midterms,” Searle added. “No one had taught them the need to go to class. So we started introducing BS majors, in an effort to make the university ready for them, rather than making them ready for the university.”

Even though preference beneficiaries often chose the easiest majors — there were few blacks and Hispanics in the most competitive engineering and computer science majors, for example — graduation rates also reflected the qualifications gap. The average six-year graduation rate for blacks and “Chicanos” (California-speak for Mexican-Americans) admitted from 1991 to 1997, the last year of preferences, was about 20 percent below that of whites and Asians. The university always put on a happy face when publicly discussing the fate of its “diversity” admits. Internally, however, even the true believers couldn’t ignore the problems.

Yet for the preference lobby, a failing diversity student is better than no diversity student at all — because the game is not about the students but about the self-image of the institution that so beneficently extends its largesse to them. Thus, when “underrepresented minorities” accepted at Berkeley dropped by half in 1998, the first year that Prop. 209 went into effect, and by nearly that much at UCLA, the university sprang into action. Never mind that the drops at other campuses were much smaller. Berkeley’s then-chancellor, Robert Berdahl, came to the Berkeley Law School and demanded that the faculty increase its shrunken minority admissions. When a professor asked how the school was supposed to do that consistent with 209, Berdahl responded testily that he didn’t care how they did it, but do it they must.

UCLA law professor Richard Sander was on a committee to discuss what could be done after 209. “The tone among many of the faculty and administrators present was not ‘How do we comply with the law in good faith?’ but ‘What is the likelihood of getting caught if we do not comply?’ ” he said. “Some faculty observed that admissions decisions in many graduate departments rested on so many subjective criteria that it would be easy to make the continued consideration of race invisible to outsiders.”

Only in 1998 did the university’s admissions processes operate without either explicit racial preferences or stealthy surrogates for race.

The results were telling: At Berkeley, the median SAT gap shrunk nearly in half, to 120 points; black and Hispanic admits logged an impressive 1280 on their combined SATs. The six-year graduation rates of this class would increase6.5 percent for blacks and 4.9 percent for Hispanics, compared with the class admitted two years earlier.

This didn’t matter to the race mongers, however. They flung themselves into their long experimentation with dif­ferent admissions schemes, with one purpose: “To maintain a racially and ethnically diverse student body,” as former UC associate president Patrick Hayashi wrote in 2005. The first scheme that the university tried was to give an admissions preference to low-income students. This device backfired, however, when it yielded a wealth of Eastern European and Vietnamese admits — not the kind of “diversity” that the university had in mind. So the campuses cut their new socioeconomic preferences in half and went back to the drawing board.

Various components in the system began diluting their academic requirements. Berkeley Law School reduced the role of the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and college grade-point average (GPA) in ranking students, and it lowered the LSAT cutoff score that would disqualify a student for consideration. Previously these lowered expectations had applied only to minorities but they would now technically apply to all students. The school also removed the quality adjuster for high-school GPAs, so that a 3.8 from a school where half the students drop out before graduating counted as much as a 3.8 from a school where the student body is frantically competing to rack up academic honors.

Other schools created pretextual institutions in the hope that they would be minority magnets. UCLA’s law school established a specialization in critical race studies, a branch of legal theory contending that racism pervades nearly every category of the law and that writing about one’s personal experiences grappling with that racism is real legal scholarship. College seniors who say that they want to specialize in critical race studies on their UCLA law school applications get a boost in the admissions process. As the school discreetly put it, a student’s interest in the program “may be a factor relevant to the overall admissions calculus.” In 2002, UCLA rejected all white applicants to the program, even though their average LSAT score was higher than the average score of the blacks who were admitted.

The university as a whole started admitting all students in the top 4 percent of their high-school class, regardless of their standardized test scores, hoping that this would net more applicants from all-minority schools. The public justification for this practice is that getting to the top of one’s class signals the same academic talents regardless of whether your school awards A’s just for showing up. But a 2005 college board study found that 30 percent of the African-American and Hispanic students with an A average have mediocre SAT verbal scores of 500 or lower.

In addition, UC also started giving preferences to students who had attended university-sponsored tutoring programs, which, while technically open to students of all races, target underrepresented minorities.

None of these new admissions measures produced the numbers of “underrepresented minorities” at Berkeley and UCLA that the diversity ideologues and the ethnic lobbies in the state legislature demanded, however. The legislature’s Latino caucus told the university that more of “their people” at Berkeley and UCLA was the price of budgetary support.

Clearly, the university remained too wedded to its old, meritocratic ways to achieve the “critical mass” of minorities that diversity advocates claim is necessary for a sound education. So the university began to “question all criteria, including criteria that have long been regarded as reflecting high academic achievement,” in the words of former associate president Hayashi. Incredibly, it began to ignore entirely its applicants’ objective academic rankings. For several decades, the university had divided its applicants into two categories: It admitted half only by objective tests of academic merit, such as standardized test scores and honors classes; it evaluated the other half subjectively, weighing such factors as race, economic status or leadership. From this tier, where racial preferences had free rein, the vast majority of blacks and Hispanics were drawn.

After 209, the university could no longer use race within this second tier, and the surrogates for race it had developed netted a lower percentage of minorities from this tier than pure racial targeting. The solution? Junk the academic tier and evaluate the entire applicant pool on subjective and “contextual” factors. The hope, obviously, was that by eliminating the academic admits, the process would open up more spaces for students admitted on “holistic” factors — who just happened to be black and Hispanic.

UC president Richard Atkinson proposed in 2001 that all campuses adopt this new “comprehensive review” process. Under comprehensive review, already in use at diversity-mad Berkeley, perfect 1600 scores on the SATs would have to be understood “contextually.” They might end up being given the same weight as 1100s, say, if the 1600-scoring student had come from a stable two-parent family and had attended a top high school. And 900s on the SATs might count more than 1600s, if the student with the 900s came from a school with many low-achieving students or if he came from a single-parent home or spoke a foreign language at home. Admissions officers perked up when they read that a student lived in a gang area or had been shot. Tutors in UC outreach programs taught students to emphasize their social and economic disadvantages in their application essay.

Precious few faculty members in the UC system had the guts to oppose Atkinson’s comprehensive-review proposal publicly, and the regents duly rubber-stamped his plan.

In 2002, a Wall Street Journal article provided eye-opening details about how comprehensive review worked in practice. UCLA had accepted a Hispanic girl with SATs of 940, while rejecting a Korean student with 1500s. The Korean student hardly lived in the lap of luxury: He tutored children to pay the rent for his divorced mother, who had developed breast cancer. But he went to a highly competitive school with a high Asian population in Irvine, while the Hispanic girl came from a school filled with failing students in overwhelmingly Hispanic South Gate. Students from South Gate got into UCLA and Berkeley at twice the overall acceptance rate. Indeed, an analysis of UCLA admissions rates in the four years following Prop. 209 — even before comprehensive review — found that going to a school with a high-achieving student body decreased one’s admissions chances sevenfold.

“Only in 1998 did the university’s admissions processes operate without either explicit racial preferences or stealthy surrogates for race.”

Comprehensive review gives university administrators a face-saving explanation for admissions disparities that appear racially motivated.

In 2003, for example, John Moores Sr., who was the one remaining regent committed to color-blind meritocracy, disclosed that Berkeley had admitted 374 applicants in 2002 with SATs under 1000 — almost all of them “students of color” — while rejecting 3,218 applicants with scores above 1400. UCLA had similar admissions disparities. In a Forbes column, Moores, who had fought tooth and nail to get the data, accused Berkeley of continuing to discriminate against Asians and of admitting students who were unprepared for Berkeley’s rigors.

Predictably, the administration exploded, engineering a censure resolution against Moores by his fellow regents. Backed up by a huge coalition of left-wing professors, civil-rights groups, ethnic advocates and opponents of standardized testing, administrators argued that the students admitted with extremely low scores had unique leadership skills or character and that their test scores said nothing about their ability to succeed at an elite institution. Race, they huffed, was irrelevant to their admission.

But the few independent studies that were published on admissions processes continued to show racial disparities that such “contextual factors” cannot explain away. A study of UCLA admissions from 1998 to 2001 — before the official onset of comprehensive review — showed that, even controlling for economic status and school ranking, blacks were 3.6 times as likely to be admitted as whites, and Hispanics 1.8 times as likely.

Even if race were not motivating admissions decisions in violation of 209, it is ludicrous to imagine that it is a favor to let someone into an elite institution where most students scored much higher on the SATs.

In 2004, a groundbreaking study by Richard Sander found that law schools that admit black students with lower GPAs and LSAT scores than their nonblack peers actually lowered those students’ chances of passing the bar. Because of the “mismatch” between their academic preparedness and the academic sophistication of the school that has bootstrapped them in, the preference beneficiaries learn less of what they need to pass the bar than they would in a school that matched their capabilities. Far from increasing the supply of black lawyers, affirmative action actually decreases the diversity of the bar.

Sander’s study demolished the two mainstays of the preferences regime: the argument that objective aptitude tests do not anticipate minorities’ academic performance, and the argument that admitting affirmative action beneficiaries to schools where their academic skills are below the norm is in their interest.

I e-mailed former UC admissions chair Michael Brown, who was appointed provost of the UC system in 2017. Rather than worry about UC eligibility standards, I suggested, more might be accomplished by trying to foster among underrepresented minorities the same fanaticism about academic overachievement that a significant portion of Asians demonstrates.

“It saddens me,” Brown e-mailed back, “that you are comparing groups based on stereotypes. Asians are not monolithic and neither are URMs [underrepresented minorities]. ‘Whites’ aren’t either. Individual merit — properly identified, supported, and rewarded — should be what we all care about, at least it seems to me.”
If only.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of the bestselling War on Cops and The Diversity Delusion (available now)Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post