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Proposed change in admissions challenged

A proposed change to the University of California admissions policy that would allow campuses to consider other criteria along with academics was challenged Wednesday as a “back door” attempt to thwart the state’s ban on affirmative action.

The draft, considered publicly by the University of California Board of Regents for the first time, would change admissions requirements at nine campuses from being strictly academic in nature to including more comprehensive measures, such as a student’s non-academic accomplishments, personal hardships and potential for contributing to the campus and society.

Though the discussion skirted race issues for the most part, the proposal stands to rekindle one of system’s most acrimonious debates over ethnic diversity on its campuses. After regents voted to ban affirmative action in 1995, the numbers of black and Latino students dropped dramatically systemwide and only now are coming back. The numbers remain lower, however, on the system’s most selective campuses, University of California-Berkeley and UCLA.

Proponents of the plan – including faculty groups, chancellors, students and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, an ex-officio regent – argue it would increase the overall quality of the University of California system with more well-rounded students.

“We’re not interested in bringing in students who are not highly qualified into the UC system,” said Chand Viswanathan, a engineering professor and chair of the University of California Academic Council. “Faculty have a tremendous concern about academic quality, and we’re not going to sacrifice that by bringing people through the back door.”

But Regent Ward Connerly of Sacramento, who spearheaded the mid-1990s bans on affirmative action at University of California and statewide, said later that the plan is designed under pressure from the state Legislature’s Latino Caucus to increase the enrollment of Latino students at UC-Berkeley.

“Don’t hide behind `underrepresented minorities.’ It’s Latinos. You don’t hear from the blacks or Native Americans on this,” he said. “In the political world they have the right to do that. But our job is to obey the laws and do what’s best for the universities.”

At issue is a proposal to abolish the University of California’s two-tiered admissions system and create one system for evaluating all students. Under current practices, 50 to 75 percent of University of California students are admitted strictly on academic criteria, including grade point average, SAT scores and rigor of high school courses taken. For the remaining 25 to 50 percent, schools can consider other factors, such as work history, economic hardship, or disadvantages from attending low-performing high schools.

Students who are currently eligible for the University of California system would remain so under the proposed change, including the top 4 percent of graduates from all California high schools. The new system has yet to be approved by the statewide Academic Senate and is expected to come to the regents for a vote in November.

“Every eligible student will be admitted to one of our campuses. This has nothing to do with those who are eligible students,” University of California President Richard Atkinson said. “But Berkeley is impacted with a huge number of eligible students requesting access. This is where this would come in.”

Each side brought out numbers to support its position. UC-Berkeley has used a version of the comprehensive review since 1998, the year the affirmative action ban went into effect. In that time, the high school grade point average of black, Latino and American Indian students admitted to Berkeley increased from 3.86 to 4.11, said Cal Moore, chair of the Berkeley faculty committee on admissions, enrollment and preparatory education.

But Jack Citrin, a UC-Berkeley political science professor opposed to the change, contended that minorities admitted under strict academic requirements perform much higher than those admitted through more comprehensive criteria.