More than two decades after affirmative action was outlawed at public campuses, University of California regents on Monday unanimously supported the repeal of Proposition 209, the 1996 state initiative that banned preferential treatment by government bodies based on race, ethnicity or sex — and has been blamed for a decline in diversity at UC’s most selective campuses.

With passionate remarks about the pernicious effects of racism, the regents endorsed Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, which would repeal Proposition 209, clearing the way for affirmative action to once more be used in UC admissions and hiring.

The measure passed the state Assembly last week and, if ratified by the state Senate by June 25, will be on the Nov. 3 statewide ballot.

UC Board Chairman John A. Perez declared that a “colorblind” model for society denies the reality of racism and quoted South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s admonition that to remain neutral amid injustice is to choose the side of the oppressor.

“If we are going to be serious about creating a university that truly serves the public interest, we cannot be silent. We cannot be neutral,” Perez said. “We must express ourselves in what we think (is) the best future for our university and our state.”

Several board members harked back to the regents’ 1995 vote that first banned affirmative action in the UC system, a year before California voters did the same statewide for public education, contracting and employment.

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“The very body that made this decision and helped create this wrong is prepared to do whatever it takes to correct it,” said Regent Laphonza Butler.

The regents’ vote amplified the sweeping support within the UC system to restore affirmative action. UC President Janet Napolitano, all 10 campus chancellors and the governing bodies for faculty, undergraduate and graduate students have expressed support for ACA 5.

“Despite nearly two decades of effort and experimentation with race-neutral admissions at UC, the University’s enrollment of students from underrepresented groups and recruitment of faculty of color falls short of reflecting the rich diversity of California’s population,” according to a memo from Napolitano’s office.

The proportion of underrepresented groups — commonly defined as students who are black, Latino, Pacific Islander or American Indian — dropped from 20% in 1995 to 15% in 1998, the memo said. Asian Americans and whites increased their share.

The UC system subsequently sought to restore diversity with race-neutral measures. In 2001, it began guaranteeing admission for all students who ranked in the top 4% of their high school class, ensuring that those in all neighborhoods would have an equal shot at a UC education.

UC campuses also revised their admissions review process from one that heavily relied on grades and test scores to a comprehensive evaluation that considers 14 factors. Under the comprehensive review, admissions officers take into account how students perform academically given the opportunities in their schools and neighborhoods.

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In addition, UC campuses increased outreach to underserved communities. UCLA, for instance, works with 20 Los Angeles Unified high schools and several black churches in the Inland Empire region to scout promising students and keep them on track. The strategy, spearheaded by Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, UCLA vice provost of enrollment management, has helped the campus increase the proportion of resident black students admitted as freshmen from 3.7% in 2012 to 6.3% in 2019.

The measures have produced some progress. The share of admission offers to California freshmen who are black increased from 4.3% in fall 2010 to 4.7% in 2019, while the Latino share grew from 22.9% to 34.3% during the same period. Asian Americans also increased from 33.9% to 35.72% while whites declined from 32.4% to 21.9%.

By way of comparison, the demographics of California high school graduates have changed during that time period. Black students decreased their share from 6.65% in 2010 to 5.3% in 2019, while Latinos increased from 42% to 51.8%, Asian Americans stayed roughly the same at about 14%, and whites declined from 34.4% to 24.7%.

But UC has not kept pace with the growing diversity of students in California K-12 schools or the overall state population, the memo said. In 2016, for instance, underrepresented students made up 37% of UC freshmen but 56% of high school graduates.

UC campuses also have not hired proportional numbers of female faculty in several fields, such as life sciences, physical sciences and mathematics, compared with the number of women with doctorates in those areas. The university has kept pace in engineering, computer science, education, arts and humanities, the board memo said.

Ahmad Mahmuod, a UC Berkeley incoming junior, said the constraints of Proposition 209 have hampered the ability to press for more black students, faculty and services — such as earmarked scholarships — at his campus. He and a group of other Berkeley students took their concerns to Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat, who has credited them for inspiring her to introduce ACA 5.

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“We know when campuses are more diverse and reflect the community, everyone benefits,” said Mahmuod, who is majoring in legal studies.

Reaction to ACA 5 is mixed among Asian Americans. Polls show that the majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action, and the measure is likely to increase the admission of students from some Southeast Asian subgroups and Pacific Islanders, according to Vincent Pan of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Others, however, are concerned that a return to affirmation action will squeeze Asian Americans out of UC seats.

Crystal Lu, president of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation, said many of her members are immigrants who came to the United States “dirt poor” and succeeded through education and hard work. Allowing preferential treatment based on race, she said, will deny people the right to succeed through merit.

“Our skin color will become a scarlet letter,” she said.

The debate over ACA 5 revives a four-decade battle over affirmative action in the UC system. In 1974, a white student named Allan Bakke sued the UC system, saying a special admissions program for minorities led to his rejection by the UC Davis School of Medicine and violated his constitutional and civil rights. In a landmark 1978 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial quotas but upheld the use of race as one of several factors in college admissions policy.

Even if ACA 5 wins passage, the UC and California State University systems would still need to decide how affirmative action would be implemented in their admission and hiring processes.

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