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Blacks May Gain as UCLA Moves to Alter Admissions

Times Staff Writer

Spurred partly by campus and community concern over dwindling numbers of African American students, UCLA is moving toward a major shift in its admissions process, perhaps as early as this fall.

The changes in admissions, pushed by acting Chancellor Norman Abrams and several faculty leaders, would be the most dramatic at UCLA in at least five years. They would move the Westwood campus toward a more “holistic” admissions model -- much like UC Berkeley’s -- in which students’ achievements are viewed in the context of their personal experiences.

UCLA officials emphasized, however, that the campus would continue to abide by the restrictions imposed by Proposition 209, the 1996 voter initiative that barred California’s public colleges and universities from considering race in admissions or employment.

A key UCLA faculty committee approved the broad framework for the admissions changes last week, with two more faculty panels expected to vote on it this month. Many details remain to be worked out, but officials said the new process, if approved, would take effect for students applying to UCLA in November for 2007. Abrams, a veteran UCLA law professor who became acting chancellor July 1, said the faculty had been studying admissions reforms for some time. Under the University of California’s system of shared governance, faculty members set admissions and eligibility standards.

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But Abrams said the admissions figures released in June, which showed that only 96 African Americans -- or 2% of the freshman class -- were likely to enroll at UCLA this fall, spurred many to action, inside and outside the university. Those numbers, the lowest at the campus since at least 1973, prompted calls from black alumni, community leaders and some legislators for an overhaul of UCLA’s admissions practices.

The UCLA figures stood in contrast to a trend toward slightly higher numbers of black, Latino and Native American students across the UC system. Those groups, though still considered underrepresented at UC, will make up just under 20% of the anticipated 2006 freshman class, compared with just below 19% for the current class, but they vary by campus.

The enrollment numbers “have been a catalyst for us within the university to look at our processes, and also for many in the community who want to see change,” Abrams said in an interview this week.

Abrams and faculty leaders said they believe the shift, if approved, will lead to fairer admissions for all applicants. They said the new process would make UCLA’s admissions similar to that used not only by UC Berkeley, but by the Ivy League and other elite private colleges.

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They also emphasized that although UCLA’s low numbers this year for both African American and Latino freshmen helped spark the changes, it was not clear what effect they would have on those figures. And they said the reforms were not geared specifically at raising those levels.

“In my view, this should not be done -- and under California law, cannot be done -- to improve our African American admissions numbers, but because it’s desirable to improve our processes overall,” Abrams said.

In response, Ward Connerly, the conservative former UC regent who was an architect of Proposition 209, said Wednesday that UCLA had the right to change its procedures, within the boundaries of law and UC guidelines. Yet he scoffed at the idea that UCLA was not making the shift in direct response to the racial numbers, saying it “doesn’t pass the giggle test.”

“It’s obvious why they’re doing it and what their objective is,” Connerly said.

Others praised the steps toward change.

“It’s hard for big institutions to make 90-degree turns while driving 70 mph, and I’m proud of my alma mater for doing that,” said Peter Taylor, a Los Angeles businessman and prominent UCLA alumnus.

Taylor, who is African American, heads a UCLA task force of alumni, community leaders and donors formed in response to the enrollment numbers. That group has endorsed the holistic approach. Darnell Hunt, a UCLA sociologist who heads its Bunche Center for African American Studies, said the new process would be “a good first step,” but he also said it could not address all the factors involved, including the socioeconomic and educational inequities that affect many minority students.

“Any change that moves UCLA toward a more inclusive, more holistic review, I’m certainly in favor of,” said Hunt, who along with several colleagues has been studying admissions as part of a research project on the challenges facing black students in California universities.

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The center’s most recent report, posted on its website last week, said UCLA’s current process “relied too heavily on minute differences in numbers and gross rankings.”

Under admissions changes that took effect for the 2002 entering class, all UC campuses accept students under a system called “comprehensive review,” in which personal factors, not just grades and test scores, are considered for all applicants. Previously, nonacademic factors, such as unusual talents and overcoming adversity, could be taken into account in admitting no more than half the freshman class at each campus.

But each UC campus, though required to stay within the broad guidelines, also was free to interpret the policy in its own way. UC Berkeley allows individual readers to review all parts of an applicant’s file.

At that campus, 140 black students, 10 more than in 2005, have said they will enroll this fall, making up 3.3% of the class of about 4,200. The number of Latino students also rose.

At UCLA, in what admissions officials have described as an attempt to increase objectivity, applicants’ files have been divided by academic and personal areas, and read by separate reviewers. That is proposed to change.

Adrienne Lavine, an engineering professor and the outgoing chairwoman of UCLA’s faculty senate, said the new process would allow the campus to better define the kind of student it wants. She and others said that was increasingly important, given the numbers of applications the campus receives. More than 47,000 students applied for the incoming freshman class.

Thomas Lifka, who oversees admissions as UCLA’s assistant vice chancellor for student academic services, described the change as one of philosophy and process but said it should not affect how students apply to the campus.

“They shouldn’t worry about presenting their credentials in a different light or manner,” Lifka said. “It has to do with how we capture the concept of merit -- and it means that for each applicant, we’ll be looking at all the information about them at the same time.”

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He and others said that although specifics of the changes remain to be decided, admissions officials must start now to shift gears, and they will start with a comprehensive study of UC Berkeley’s process.

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rebecca.trounson@latimes.com


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