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Affirmative Action:
What Michigan Can Really Learn from California

By Nancy Cantor

This essay appeared as a guest column in The Detroit News May 17, 1999.

At California's flagship public universities, Berkeley and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), admission levels of underrepresented minorities -- Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans -- remain well below where they were prior to Proposition 209, the voter initiative that banned the use of race in university admissions. At Berkeley, they are down 44 percent and at UCLA they are down 36 percent from pre-Proposition 209 levels.

A recent spate of news articles and editorials have glossed over these ugly effects of Proposition 209 at California's flagship institutions, focusing instead on increases in the number of underrepresented minorities offered admission to any of the eight undergraduate campuses within the University of California system. In fact, these statistics have been used to suggest that those who fear a sharp drop in the racial diversity at the University of Michigan if race is no part of admissions decisions are merely "crying wolf." Far from it.

Consider what has happened in the past two years at Berkeley, one of our nation's most preeminent universities -- and the institution in the UC system most like the University of Michigan. In 1998, the first year with race-blind admissions in California, the combined admission of underrepresented minorities in the undergraduate population at Berkeley plummeted from 1,897 to 818, a 57 percent drop from the previous year. So this year when Berkeley officials announced a 29 percent increase in admissions of underrepresented minorities from 1998 -- 818 to 1,056 -- it was no surprise that supporters of affirmative action did not welcome the news as proof that affirmative action is no longer necessary.

Indeed, admissions of underrepresented minorities at Berkeley remain 44 percent below 1997 admission levels. A drop from 1,897 to 1,056 underrepresented minorities is hardly a success story.

At UCLA, the story is largely the same. In 1998, admissions of underrepresented minorities in the undergraduate population decreased 36 percent from the previous year (from 2,121 to 1,358). Unlike Berkeley, however, UCLA did not post even an increase in its underrepresented minority admissions this year. At the current levels, admissions of underrepresented minorities at UCLA therefore remain 36 percent below 1997 rates.

The law schools at Berkeley and UCLA have experienced similar declines in the admission of underrepresented minorities since the affirmative action ban went into effect for these schools: dropping a shocking 69 percent at UCLA -- from 222 in 1996 to 68 in 1998 -- and dropping 44 percent over the same time period from 172 to 96 at Berkeley (Boalt Hall Law School).

A recent editorial published by The Detroit News, citing 1999 Berkeley and UCLA admissions figures out of context, assured readers that the end of affirmative action "has not produced 'resegregation' on college campuses." That is, however, precisely what is happening in California. The ban on affirmative action is pushing disproportionate percentages of minority students into less selective schools within the California system.

For example, at the University of California at Riverside, a less selective university within the UC system, minority admissions have increased 61 percent from 1997. Opponents of affirmative action have boldly tried to paint this de facto segregation as a benefit to minority students, ignoring the evidence to the contrary. As Derek Bok and William Bowen chronicle in their recent book, The Shape of the River, minority students who attend selective universities are more likely to graduate than minority students with similar Scholastic Assessment Test scores who attend less-selective institutions.

In addition, this resegregation presents serious obstacles for any university that views racial diversity as essential to maintaining the quality of education for all students.

It is much too early to predict the long-term effects of race-blind admissions policies in California. But if we are concerned with the values of excellence, opportunity and integration in our nation's best universities, an honest approach to the data from California clearly demonstrates a continuing need for affirmative action. The experience in California, if anything, counsels caution in Michigan before taking the wrong lessons from only half-understood statistics.

Nancy Cantor is Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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