The quest for diversity at California's state universities

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The 40-year debate over affirmative action at state universities generally has been conducted in terms of general principles. At first, advocates emphasized the importance of compensating African Americans (and later others) for the effects of generations of discrimination, while opponents contended that the Constitution must be colorblind. Later, the debate shifted to the claim that there are educational benefits to a racially diverse student body, a rationale for preferences that the Supreme Court grudgingly has accepted.

But always lurking beneath the high-minded discourse was the question of how racial preferences — or a ban on them — would affect my racial or ethnic group.

That subtext surfaced with a vengeance recently when three Asian American state senators expressed second thoughts about a proposed ballot question that would have allowed California's state universities to consider race (and gender) in admissions decisions. The measure would have asked voters to repeal part of Proposition 209, which prohibited state agencies and educational institutions from discriminating or showing preference on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

To get on the ballot, the amendment needed the support of the Legislature. Among those voting yes in January were Sens. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) and Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). But after complaints from "thousands of people," those senators sent a letter to Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) this month asking him to postpone action. "As lifelong advocates for the Asian American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children," they wrote.

The senators got their wish. The Assembly will not act. Instead, the Legislature will convene a task force on whether admissions policies need to change and how.

It's not a foregone conclusion that, if parts of Proposition 209 were repealed, Asian American enrollment at UCLA and UC Berkeley would decline, but it's certainly a possibility. Yet supporters of racial preferences argue — and we agree — that a campus with meaningful racial diversity benefits all students. And it's good for society when institutions that disproportionately train future leaders in business, law and the sciences are racially diverse.

That's why we opposed Proposition 209. Allowing universities to take race into account in their admissions policies isn't the only way to promote diversity; to its credit, the University of California system has pursued other means to that end such as aggressive outreach to high schools attended by minorities. But these efforts have fallen short of achieving the university's diversity goals, particularly in the enrollment of African Americans.

By all means, legislators should weigh the benefits and drawbacks of racial preferences. But regardless of their background, participants in the debate need to look beyond the question of how many of "our children" will receive acceptance letters.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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