UC Regent Explains Shift in Views on Affirmative Action


University of California Regent Ward Connerly said Thursday that his views on affirmative action have come "really a long way" during the last several months, allowing him to see the value of considering race in some circumstances when admitting students to UC.

Connerly said he used to believe that UC should be available only "for the academically worthy." Now, he said, he has concluded that "we would miss something if we were to do that. That an academic meritocracy does in fact rule out that poor black student who . . . if she didn't have to work, [might] have the same grades as the white or the Asian student."'

But Connerly, who in the past has called for an end to race-based preferences in UC admissions, said he has not wavered in that view.

Within one week, he said, he plans to recommend several modifications to UC's current affirmative action policies. Although he gave no specifics, he suggested that race should be considered when individuals can prove it has been an obstacle to their success. But he objected to preferences being given to entire racial groups.

"Don't define a Chicano or an African American as being disadvantaged just because they happen to be [Chicano or African American]," he said. Under current admission guidelines, "we're almost by definition saying that's a barrier. I don't think that's the case."

Connerly's comments came after regents heard the third and final presentation by UC administrators on the university's affirmative action programs. The stage is now set for the regents' July meeting, at which the board will consider whether to alter current policies, which take race and ethnicity into account in hiring and admissions decisions.

On Thursday, UC President Jack W. Peltason and a few other regents said they will soon submit proposals outlining their views on what should be done. Several regents, including Connerly, stressed that they do not intend to dismantle affirmative action programs entirely. But many said they are convinced that improvements are needed.

"I have grave concerns about a policy that tells a young Asian student from a broken family, with an alcoholic mother and all sorts of disadvantages working through high school that [he will be] treated differently than an African American son of a doctor . . . who lives in Beverly Hills," said Regent David Flinn, who said he had heard that such a specific case existed. "We have to look at those things."

Regent S. Stephen Nakashima noted that another regent, Ralph C. Carmona, considered himself a beneficiary of affirmative action.

"He's a well-educated person, very successful," Nakashima said. "Should his son be entitled to all the programs that other Hispanics and blacks for whom these programs were established are entitled?"

But Connerly, a black businessman who has been the most outspoken regent on the issue, was the man many of the UC students and staff in the audience were there to watch.

Last month, a student protest on affirmative action briefly shut down the board meeting. On Thursday, students took a different tack, serenading Connerly on the occasion of his 56th birthday and presenting him with a chocolate cake that said, "Preserve Affirmative Action" in white frosting.

Connerly said he feels strongly that the university's outreach programs, which attempt to increase the pool of qualified applicants from disadvantaged groups, should be preserved and expanded. He said he was terrified by the fact that only 1,000 black Californians were eligible for UC in 1994. But again, he stressed that race should not be the basis upon which outreach efforts are made.

"I have no problem with saying, 'This high school is not sending many UC-eligible students to us,' and perhaps we can target that high school," he said. "There are a lot of different tricks we can use to make sure we're being inclusive. . . . But race should not be a factor."

However, he said, that should not prevent admissions officers from concluding, "on the basis of some evidence, that 'This candidate has overcome a racial barrier.' That to me is acceptable, because you're making the judgment on the basis of that individual, but it's not being made on the basis of the person's race."

Connerly could not explain how that process would work in practice. Asked what would qualify as a racial barrier, he said he would leave that to university administrators to decide.

Connerly said his affirmative action proposals, which he has yet to write, will be sweeping, addressing race and gender considerations as they apply to "the total structure of the university"--including contracting, hiring and admissions.

"The whole culture of academia is such that we are probably the most race-conscious institution in America, because of the principle that we want to be diverse, which is a commendable principle," he said. "But I think that we have built in a whole system of race-consciousness. . . . There are some of us who say we ought to be re-examining that."

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