The Future of Diversity at the UC's

This piece looks at Proposition 209 as The Supreme Court prepares to review the case and UC Santa Cruz's efforts to achieve diversity are highlighted with recent success and student reactions are noted.

This coming fall 41 more African American students are expected to attend the University of California Santa Cruz, according to admissions. This is a 26 percent increase from Fall 2011 new freshman levels. The growth for the African American student population comes on the heels of two new appointments to key positions influencing enrollment at the university.

The new Director of Admissions Michael McCawley and Director of the African American Resource Center Dr. Marla Wyche-Hall are looking at boosting the university’s African American population from the current level of 3.7 percent of total admissions, while dealing with restraints put in place by Proposition 209.

Proposition 209 prevents California’s public teaching institutions from looking at race or ethnic background when considering acceptance. The debated proposition is currently facing scrutiny as The Supreme Court reviews a case that could determine its legality. 

“We don’t get to consider race, gender, ethnicity in any of our admissions decision because of the sate law, Prop 209,” said Michael McCawley, who became the director of admissions at UCSC in December 2011. Proposition 209, passed by California voters in 1996, has prevented admissions officers from making decisions based on these factors. This has increased the difficulty for universities to achieve a balanced and diverse population.  Supporters of Proposition 209 said the law would promote excellence, fairness and prevent unqualified students from gaining entry based on the color of their skin.  McCawley disagrees, ‘The university has always made decisions based on excellence,” said the new director and adds that in his 30 years at the university a decision to accept a student was never done on the basis of race alone. “It was one factor of many but we were always driven by the academic performance of students,” said McCawley.

Dr. Marla Wyche-Hall who took over the African American Resource Center in January 2012, attributes the recent influx to an overall commitment by the university to be open to African American students. “It’s a collaborative effort starting with Chancellor Blumenthal to Mr. Michael’s shop in admissions. Something that takes multiple parts,” said Wyche-Hall. According to the new director this is a campus wide approach that the African American Resource Center plays a part in. She added, that once they get here it takes work from across the campus to have students meet the university’s main goal, to have students graduate.

To meet this objective they must obtain qualified students out of California’s high schools, which is becoming a challenge. The decline in the quality of education in the state, according to Director of Admissions Michael McCawley, is in part due to a lack of commitment to their students that they once had. He points out, that qualified students of color are often few in numbers. The passing of Proposition 209, created increased competition for these students from out of state schools. Who according to the director have acted “almost predatory in nature.” Schools saw an opportunity to use the law to illustrate a lack of support for students of color by the state of California. Out of state and private institutions “were saying we still want you,” said McCawley.

Director of Communications Keith Kamisugi with the Equal Justice Society stated that proponents for Proposition 209 argue that the law creates equal opportunity, but this is under the assumption that all things are equal. The proposition does not allow for the “historical facts of the lack of opportunity for people of color,” said Kamisugi. He added the effort to overturn Proposition 209 is not an issue of retribution but remediation, to correct some of these deficiencies and hold history accountable. Kamisugi mentioned, “The current color blind approach will not improve diversity on college campuses.”

The bolt of new energy and continued efforts to achieve a diverse student body is taking place as The Supreme Court prepares to review a case which could determine the fate of the controversial proposition. The law is often cited as a principal reason for the dwindling population of students of color in California’s higher education system. In April of this year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the legality of the law. The high court will begin to hear arguments this fall with a ruling expected early next year.

In the office of admissions at UCSC they have an eye on the case and its outcome. McCawley mentioned there are too many factors and unknowns to base any current actions on a supposed verdict by the court. McCawley attributes the low numbers of students of color across the UC system in part to the lack of qualified students, in particular qualified African American students. The state has seen a drastic decline since what McCawley called the “golden era” of education in the 1960s, and this perpetuates a “deficit mentality” message to African Americans that has long been present in our nation’s history. Low UC eligibility rates in California, topped with Proposition 209 reverberates this message and could be telling African Americans that “we do not want you, or that it’s unobtainable,” according to McCawley, in reference to earning a degree from a UC. 

To battle this the university has reached out into communities spreading the message that you can succeed. “When we reach out we try to reach out to a lot of different students,” said McCawley. They look at where the students are in their educational career. If they need additional help and course requirements they may recommend attending a community college and transferring into a UC. According to the director, admitting students that fail, does not help anyone.

The African American Resource Center at UCSC sponsors events like Destination Higher Education. The outreach program brings qualified and accepted African American students from around the sate to the campus. This extra bit of recruitment shows the potential African American student the campus and all that UCSC has to offer. The program introduces them to campus life with a night in the dorms and is a key tool in attracting the qualified students that the university requires to achieve a diverse population. 

First year freshman Ermaline Ogbodo from Fresno CA, who participated in Destination Higher Education, mentioned that programs like these and the work by Dr. Wyche-Hall has initiated a big difference. She said that these events speak to students, and tells them that there are resources here for them. She added, “This gives a message that they are not alone and have a place to come, and plays into the higher amount of students of color coming to campus.” 

Elena Catherine Wash from Long Beach CA, a psychology major who has now graduated, is saddened that the increased energy at the AARC is happing at the end of her UCSC career and experience. She said the future for students of color on campus is promising. She is noticing the small increases on the campus and is really hopeful for the future. “I feel like it is a lot more diverse than when I came here, I see a lot more African American students up here than my freshman year. Before you could pretty much identify everyone, now you see new faces around, it’s exciting to see that.”

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