An Unfinished Mission: Affirmative Action, Minority Admissions, and the Politics of Mission at the University of California, 1868-1997

Article excerpt

The University of California's Berkeley campus (UCB) has been viewed as a bellwether for diversity in U.S. higher education. As such, recent changes in its admissions policies regarding underrepresented minorities have fueled much public debate. This article examines how the UC system has addressed the problem of differential access for minorities and longstanding inconsistencies between its admissions practices and mission. It argues that the system's recent retreat from affirmative action signals a departure from its earlier emphasis on providing Californians with greater access to higher education generally and increasing the representation of minorities at UCB specifically.

Institutions of higher education, like any other social institutions, often sit at the intersection of high-minded ideals and practical realities. Though intended to perform a substantive function in the society of which they are a part, they are, without question, the shadows of their founders and the embodiment of a particular social vision held by those who brought them into being. This vision is ultimately shaped by practical constraints such as the context of group struggle over access to resources and the existing relations of power in a society. As a university education increasingly has come to be viewed as a prerequisite for economic security and success, the focus has largely shifted away from how best to fulfill the social and educational visions of the missions of colleges and universities to questions of how best to apportion a valuable yet scarce resource to a growing and diverse population.

The University of California-Berkeley (UCB) exemplifies this dilemma. As the flagship public institution in its state, recognized both nationally and abroad as a model for higher education, admission to its undergraduate and graduate programs is a much sought-after prize. Its high status ranking as the premier UC campus has made it as much a symbol of privilege as one of social mobility, and therefore a location of as well as a weapon used in the struggles between different groups over access to resources. Correspondingly, UCB's admissions process has been the object of intense scrutiny in debates over affirmative action in university admissions.

Historical examination of the University of California system's mission, though historically one of inclusivity and diversity with respect to the people of California, often finds the system falling short of living up to its goals with regard to the issue of equal access for women, minorities, and the poor. Over the past 40 years, both the UC governing body of Regents and state policymakers have taken steps to expand the access of various populations to UCB and other campuses while simultaneously beginning to limit enrollment in a nationally recognized but overpopulated publicly funded system of higher education. However, the recent popularity of anti-affirmative action movements in the nation and the state has signaled an ideological and practical retreat from the University of California system's longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. This has prompted the implementation of admissions criteria that, while reducing the pool of eligible students, have also unfairly handicapped minority and low-income students. Having once been on the forefront of managing racial and ethnic diversity in higher education, the UC Board of Regents voted in 1995 to formally do away with affirmative action policies in its admissions process, implementing a ban on the consideration of race and gender in admissions decisions (UC Board of Regents, 1995).

The present study focuses on the recent historical trend in institutional goals with respect to admissions for the University of California system. It specifically addresses the system's shift away from the spirit and intent of the "Principles of University Access" set forth in its charter (the California State Legislature's Organic Act of 1868), and the move toward more exclusionary and narrow definitions of merit that protect group privilege. …


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