April 21, 2003
UC President Atkinson comments on affirmative
By Richard C. Atkinson
President, University of California
With the Supreme Court considering a momentous case on the future of
affirmative action in university admissions, I believed it was important
to share the University of California's experience since race and ethnicity
were eliminated as admissions considerations at UC. That was the origin
of my op-ed in the Washington Post on April 20, 2003.
I have been a longtime supporter of affirmative action, and my views
on the subject are well known. However, the University of California
is governed by Proposition 209 and will of course continue to abide
by its requirement that race and ethnicity not be factors in UC admissions.
A reprinted copy of my op-ed follows. It and this statement represent
my comment on the University of Michigan case at the present time.
However, a great deal of additional information about the UC admissions
process since the implementation of Proposition 209 has been compiled
in a report available at http://www.ucop.edu/sas/publish/aa_final2.pdf.
I recommend this report to anyone seeking further data or details regarding
the issues raised in the op-ed.
Diversity: Not there yet
In the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court's hearing on affirmative
action, the public University of California system was depicted alternately
as a dramatic success or a dismal failure in its efforts to enroll Latino
and African American students after the elimination of race and ethnicity
as factors in student admissions.
The truth lies somewhere in between. But as a university president
who took office just after the decision in California to disallow consideration
of race and ethnicity in university admissionsand as one who retires
a few months from nowI have concluded that we are still not doing
a good enough job of providing access for the full diversity of students
in our state.
California is a rapidly diversifying society. In 1990, 34 percent of
the state's public school students were Latinos; in 2000, the figure
was 43 percent, and by 2010 it is projected to be 52 percent. Against
this backdrop of stunning demographic change stands a public school
system characterized by vast disparities in educational opportunity.
There are many excellent public high schools, each of which sends dozens
of graduates to the UC system each year.
Meanwhile, there are many schools that send hardly any students to
The impact of educational disadvantage is evident in students' eligibility
rates for the UC system, which are defined by high school grades and
standardized test scores. The most recent study found that 30 percent
of Asian American students in California and 13 percent of white students
met UC eligibility requirements; the figure was a disheartening 4 percent
for Latinos and 3 percent for African Americans.
The university always has sought to maintain the highest possible academic
standards while providing the broadest possible access to California
students. We have pursued both excellence and diversity because we believe
they are inextricably linked, and because we know that an institution
that ignores either of them runs the risk of becoming irrelevant in
a state with the knowledge-based economy and tremendously varied population
The UC system in an earlier period took account of race and ethnicity
in its admissions process. Latino, African American and Native American
applicants were identified as "under-represented minority"
students, reflecting these groups' low eligibility rates traditionally,
and that factor was taken into account in the admissions process. But
a contentious vote of the Board of Regents in 1995, followed by a statewide
initiative passed by California voters in 1996, ended that practice.
In its place, UC launched a greatly intensified program of outreach
to public schools, working in partnership to improve academic performance
and college eligibility in schools that traditionally sent few students
to UC. We took on a vastly expanded role in providing professional development
for K-12 teachers. And we made changes in our admissions processsuch
as granting UC eligibility to the top 4 percent of students in every
California high schoolthat, while not aimed specifically at diversity,
have had the effect of expanding UC access for educationally disadvantaged
What have been the results for under-represented minority students?
In some respects, the story is encouraging. After an initial drop, these
students have represented an increasing proportion of the UC entering
class in each of the past four years. This year the absolute number
of underrepresented minority freshmen at UC campuses exceeds the number
enrolled before race and ethnicity were eliminated as admissions considerations.
But the story is troubling in at least two respects. First, the proportions
of underrepresented minority students at UC's more selective campusesparticularly
UC Berkeley and UCLAremain far below their previous levels. Second,
the gap between the percentage of under-represented minority students
in the California graduating high school class and the percentage in
the UC freshman class has widened appreciably.
In 1995, 38 percent of California public high school graduates were
under-represented minority students, as were 21 percent of UC freshmen
a gap of 17 percentage points. In 2002, however, the figures were 42
percent in the statewide high school graduating class and 18 percent
in the UC freshman classa gap of 24 percentage points. Gains in
minority admissions at UC are not closing this gap, because the diversity
of the California high school population continues to grow.
What we do about this is a source of real concern. We must continue
our efforts to help close the achievement gap in the public schools.
We must continue refining our admissions policies to ensure that they
reward high achievement and yet recognize that high achievement can
be demonstrated in different ways in different educational settings.
But I offer California as a cautionary tale to the rest of the nation.
Our experience to date shows that if race cannot be factored into admissions
decisions at all, the ethnic diversity of an elite public institution
such as the University of California may fall well behind that of the
state it serves. And that is something that should trouble us all.