First part of a two-part article.In California, a battle over affirmative action is being waged. On November 5, the State of California will vote on a ballot initiative to eliminate affirmative action. Proposition 209 removes race, ethnicity, and gender from consideration in state-supported hiring and contracting, and in admissions to state-supported institutions of higher education. Proposition 209 is also known as the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), and it is leading in the polls perhaps due to its “Civil Rights” moniker. In effect, this proposition says that discrimination is a thing of the past. Indeed, the primary supporters of this proposition feel that it is discrimination to consider race, ethnicity, and gender in hiring, contracting, and educational opportunity. Those opposed to this proposition feel that discrimination remains rampant and that consideration of race, ethnicity, and gender for increasing professional diversity in the workplace and in institutions of higher education continues to be a serious responsibility of a civilized society.While opponents of this proposition often accuse its supporters of racism and sexism, the reality is much more complex. Many individuals, including some ethnic minorities and women, support the proposition because they feel that racial and gender considerations are used inappropriately to exclude “qualified” individuals or that preference is given to “unqualified” applicants to increase the diversity of the work force. Many others oppose the proposition because they have observed how racial and gender considerations increase opportunity for those who would otherwise be overlooked, or even excluded, from active consideration.

A discussion of four common questions about affirmative action follows. The discussion will focus on higher education. Examples and data from the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) will be presented as UC Berkeley has made “Excellence and Diversity” its credo, and its student body has become one of the most diverse of any major American public university.

Does Affirmative Action Work?

President Clinton gave his answer to this question in an address to the nation on affirmative action in the Rotunda of the National Archives on July 19, 1995:

….college presidents will tell you that the education their schools offer actually benefit from diversity; colleges where young people get the education and make the personal and professional contacts that will shape their lives. If their colleges look like the world they are going to live and work in, and they learn from all different kinds of people things that they can’t learn in books, our systems of higher education are stronger…

On the UC Berkeley campus, the academic qualifications of the freshman class have increased as the undergraduate body has diversified. The Chancellor of UC Berkeley, Chang-Lin Tien, wrote for the Los Angeles Times on July 19, 1995, “Our fall 1994 freshman class, in which no racial group constitutes a majority, is stronger academically than the class of 10 years ago.” An analysis of the admissions program shows that 50% of the admitted students are offered admissions based solely on test scores and high school grades. Fully 95% of the admitted students are from the top 12.5% of the high school classes throughout California. A small fraction of students are admitted under special circumstances using considerations other than grades and test scores because they have shown the personal and intellectual potential to succeed. They have special talents (e.g., athletics, music, or art) or have successfully overcome special difficulties. Their circumstances convince admissions officers that they have the potential to succeed in the UC Berkeley academic environment and that they can positively influence other students on the UC Berkeley campus. These students comprise only 5% of each new freshman class.

As diversity has increased, so has the overall graduation rate at UC Berkeley. The six year graduation rate is now 80%, much higher than the 48% rate for the 1955 freshman class when the undergraduate student body was primarily white. The graduation rates are increasing more rapidly for African American and Chicano students than for either white or Asian American students. Also, the graduation rates for underrepresented students at Berkeley are higher than for those students at many comparable colleges and universities throughout the country (data from the Office of Admissions and Records, UC Berkeley).

Despite increasing diversity in the undergraduate student body at Berkeley, the faculty themselves are not yet so diverse. In 1964, a committee was formed of mostly white male faculty members who realized that California’s demographics were leading to a predominantly non-white society and that the future faculty of the public University should reflect the population of the state. Their goal was affirmative action to identify, support, and promote students from underrepresented groups and women to succeed in their undergraduate careers at the University of California at Berkeley and to take up academic professions. This committee, now a formal committee of the Berkeley Academic Senate called the Special Scholarships Committee, continues to work toward the same goal.

Are Affirmative Action Programs Still Needed?

One of the authors of Proposition 209, Professor Glynn Custred of California State University, Hayward, has indicated that discrimination is no longer a major problem (NBC News Dateline interview, January 23, 1996). If that is true, then affirmative action programs have been successful, and they have, to a point. Unfortunately, as several recent studies have documented, Custred’s impression is far from the reality of the situation. White males make up 30% of the American population, but they make up 80% of the tenured professors and an even higher percentage of members of Congress, corporate CEOs, school superintendents, and U.S. Presidents. President Clinton provided the following statistics in his July 19, 1995, address mentioned above:

The unemployment rate for African Americans remains about twice that of whites. The Hispanic rate is still much higher. Women have narrowed the earnings gap, but still make only 72 percent as much as men do for comparable jobs. The average income for an Hispanic woman with a college degree is still less than the average income of a white man with a high school diploma.

Unfortunately, even in UC Berkeley classrooms, ethnic, racial, and gender stereotypes can be found. There are the women in the chemistry class who are accused of copying each others’ homework, else why would they be succeeding. There is the professor who upon noting an increased number of African American males in his classes comments on the possible need for a metal detector in the classroom doorway. There are the pressures put upon the Asian American students who are expected to break the curve, because they are the model intellectual minority, after all. However, anecdotal incidents hold little sway in the arguments for or against affirmative action programs, since there are also the anecdotal incidents in which reverse discrimination has occurred because someone is white or male.

Because of concern about this possibility, there have been several studies on reverse discrimination. A recent study was commissioned by the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. The draft report compiled by Rutgers University Law Professor Alfred W. Blumrosen indicates that, “the problem of reverse discrimination is not widespread; and that where it exists, the courts have given relief.” He concludes, “nothing in these cases would justify dismantling the existing structure of equal employment opportunity programs.”

Are Less-Qualified Persons Given Preference?

The most pervasive myths about affirmative action programs involve preferences to those who are less qualified and quotas. Any program that solicits unqualified persons or bases its decisions on quotas is not an affirmative action program since these practices only set up the individuals for failure. Certainly there are abuses of affirmative action programs, just as there are abuses of programs of admissions to colleges and universities (is a phone call from a state senator on the Finance Committee an abuse of the admissions program?) and in government contracting (how about the $400 toilet seats for military aircraft?). As President Clinton has admonished about affirmative action, “mend it, don’t end it.”

When preferences are put into a negative light, it is presumed that someone is getting something that she does not deserve. When preferences are put into a positive light, it is presumed that someone is finally getting an opportunity that has been previously unavailable due to of the color of his skin or because of her gender. The crux of the issue of preferences is the meaning of the word, “qualified.” Is qualified a high score on a standardized test? Is qualified gaining entrance to a college or university based on your high school grades alone? Is qualified excelling in the sciences when you must work at your after-school job for six hours a day during high school? Is qualified becoming a National Merit Scholar when no one else in your family has ever attended college?

One evaluates the potential of an 18-year-old student or, for that matter, a 30-year-old faculty colleague based on one’s own experience. If your own experience, and that of the committee members assisting in the evaluations, reflects a limited subset of the community, how can you justify your consideration of circumstances with which you have no experience? Your best guess for success might be your own path to success, and that certainly is not the only path to success.

Don’t Students or Faculty Admitted or Hired by Affirmative Action Fail More Often?

To this question comes another question, “Fail more often than who?” At UC Berkeley, a recent evaluation of students’ grades was revealing about predicting success from standardized test scores. The Office of Student Research compared SAT scores and grade point averages of students who had completed their freshman year. Of the students who had originally entered the University in the highest range of performance with combined scores of 1400 to 1600 on the SAT standardized test (a perfect score is 1600), 7% had grade point averages of 2.0 or below in their first two semesters. Thus, high SAT scores are not absolute predictors of success, as some argue. In contrast, a significant fraction of students who do not score as high on the SAT, achieve high grade point averages. Of those students who achieved 3.5 or better in their first two semesters, 19% had combined SAT scores below 1199, and 25% had combined SAT scores of 1200 to 1299. A multitude of academic and non-academic factors unrelated to SAT scores or high school grades affect the academic success of students at UC Berkeley and at other colleges and universities.

Among faculty, the numbers of women and scholars from underrepresented ethnic groups are small enough to thwart reliable statistical analyses about success or failure. However, the numbers of white men have been large enough to notice that many members of this category do not attain tenure, have personal problems, and are involved in disciplinary actions. This result does not mean that white men as a group are a problem, nor does it mean that the percentages of white men with problems can be transferred to the other gender or to other ethnic groups. Simply put, one cannot extend conclusions about any individual to an entire community.

If Proposition 209 passes, it will have a devastating effect on higher education and the state of California, according to Chang-Lin Tien and Charles Young, the Chancellors of UC Berkeley and UCLA, respectively. They held a press conference on October 20, 1996, to emphasize their opposition to Proposition 209. Affirmative action is also an issue in the upcoming national elections. Presidential candidate Bob Dole supports Proposition 209 and would eliminate all federal affirmative action programs. President Clinton opposes Proposition 209, and his position on affirmative action is that we should, “mend it, not end it.”

A further discussion of affirmative action, particularly in the biological sciences, will appear in this column in next month’s newsletter.

Caroline and Laura Kane and Williams

Caroline M. Kane, WICB Committee member, Adjunct Associate Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology and Chair of the Coalition for Excellence and Diversity in Mathematics, Science and Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley.


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