California legislators will be unable to confront some of the more serious issues facing higher education unless they drop the notion that equality means every ethnic group must be proportionally represented in our state universities.
If passed, Assemblyman Tom Hayden's bill would require the University of California's nine campuses, the 19 institutions of the state university system and all 100 community colleges "strive to approximate, by the year 2000, the general ethnic, gender, economic and regional compositions of recent high school graduates, both in first-year classes and subsequent college and university graduating classes."
A further provision of the bill is the continued use of "special admissions standards" to increase enrollment proportions of minority students not eligible for admission to UC through the "regular" admissions categories.
Although the bill's language is imprecise, its general intent seems clear: California's colleges and universities should guarantee the "right" proportion of minority students in the freshman class and then, once enrolled, take steps to ensure their successful graduation.
But there are two immediate and stubborn problems. The first involves the distressing dropout rate of minority students admitted to the University of California, because of a policy that admits many students with insufficient academic qualifications who then leave without graduating. The second problem revolves around increased demands nationally for higher standards for both teachers and students. Yet, efforts to raise educational standards run up against the certainty that, whatever standard is set, some people will not be able to meet it.
The problem is exacerbated by ethnic, economic and racial factors. Stated simply, a greater percentage of blacks and Latinos fail than whites and Asians and, of late, more blacks than Latinos. Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer has said any attempt to apply a high standard of competence across the board means more blacks fail. Sadly, that is happening to a discouragingly large number of blacks in institutions of higher education.
Thus, the raising of standards comes into direct conflict with the effort to reach "parity"--to achieve proportions of blacks and Latinos at each level of the educational system that roughly match their proportions in the population at large.
More alarming are critics such as Charles Willie, a professor of education at Harvard, who says "excellence" should not be the primary concern of the university because it serves to exclude minorities. Instead, he says, the university should be concerned with "adequacy." Any talk of a master university, he insists, smacks of a master race.
Willie adds that many whites who are highly qualified will have to make room for those qualified on the basis of other kinds of "intelligence." He acknowledges that white and Asian students with straight-A averages were turned away from UC Berkeley, an action he claims is justified in the name of "diversity." As for the way universities hire their faculty, Willie says they should not choose the "best," but should instead give precedence to minority candidates who fall within the range of adequacy.
Willie's recommendations to "rescue" members of minority groups from the requirements and standards of academic excellence are a sure recipe for mediocrity. Such proposals--no matter how often they are bathed in the warm light of "diversity" and "pluralism"--are demeaning to minority students who do not wish to be treated as exceptions to legitimate academic requirements.
There is also something terribly wrong about an affirmative-action "parity" principle when, in the name of group equity, the percentage of whites in the fall, 1989, Berkeley freshman class is only 32%--even though they comprise about 60% of California's public high-school graduates and almost 70% of those academically eligible for admission to the UC system.
Everyone wants to see growing numbers of students from under-represented groups in the freshman class. The question, however, is whether this commendable goal should replace the principles of individual achievement, merit and academic excellence as the primary criteria for university admissions.
Both Legislators and educators should concentrate less on the body count of minority students admitted to Berkeley or UCLA and more on assuring that those admitted can do the work and will graduate. The real challenge to California's top universities is whether they can improve the education of all students to the point where there can be diversity without a racially-based lowering of performance standards or a decline in intellectual quality.