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Crisis Point

Published Oct 1, 2006 12:00 AM

Admissions and African Americans

There's excitement in Westwood as a new school year begins. But there's also concern. Lots of it.

Only 2 percent of incoming freshmen at the campus in which Ralph Bunche, Jackie Robinson and Tom Bradley excelled are African American. As of last count, that number represented only 99 students out of an incoming class of more than 4,800 freshmen. It's a situation so serious that Chancellor Norm Abrams, community leaders, the faculty, campus administrators, students and alumni all call it a crisis.

So, in its ongoing effort to improve the fairness of its admissions process for all applicants, UCLA is taking action. Lots of it.

On Sept. 28, the university announced that the UCLA Academic Senate has voted to approve a holistic model for freshman admissions in which, beginning with the fall 2007 freshman class, each application will be read and considered in its entirety rather than having sections reviewed by different people. The change is the most sweeping reform since the current process, called comprehensive review, was adopted by the University of California Board of Regents five years ago.

Confronting the Crisis: A Roundtable Looks for Answers

Mandla Kayise '87, President, UCLA Black Alumni Association, President, New World Education

Thomas E. Lifka, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Student Academic Services

Keith S. Parker, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Government & Community Relations

Lawrence H. Lokman, Assistant Vice Chancellor, University Communications

Yolanda Nunn Gorman '78, M.B.A. '83, Ph.D. '93, President, UCLA Alumni Association, President, Brilliance Strategies, Inc.

Patricia O'Brien, Executive Dean, UCLA College of Letters and Science

Peter Taylor '80, Chair, African American Enrollment Task Force, Past Chair, UCLA Foundation, Managing Director, Lehman Bros., Inc.

Janina Montero, Vice Chancellor, Student Affairs

Terry Flennaugh '06, Member, African Student Union.

The faculty, which had been considering the change for the past year, decided to implement an holistic approach because they believe that the comprehensive review admissions admissions policy for freshman can be better achieved through a more individualized and qualitative assessment of each applicants entire application, noted Adrienne Lavine, outgoing chair of the Academic Senate. Holistic review is the preferred method of evaluation at Berkeley and other elite institutions, including the Ivy League.

Ensuring a fair and effective method of providing access to all underrepresented applicants is a challenge faced by state and national universities across the country, particularly at the most highly selective campuses such as UCLA, Berkeley and others. In California, voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, eliminating affirmative action. And in the past several years, the academic landscape has changed dramatically, with an increase in the competitiveness of admissions, both in terms of astronomic growth in volume and the academic quality of applicants to UCLA. (Last year, UCLA received approximately 47,000 applications, the most of any school in the country.) Chancellor Abrams stressed that the changes at UCLA must and will comply with Proposition 209.

There are bright spots, such as UCLA's very successful community college transfer program, where African-American enrollment is increasing. Still, the drop in freshman enrollment by underrepresented minorities, particularly African Americans, strikes at the heart of the principle upon which the University of California was founded—to provide access to excellence for a student body that reflects the state's diversity. For UCLA, particularly, it threatens an impressive legacy of preparing extraordinary African-American leaders.

The university has created an African American Enrollment Task Force of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community leaders to address the issues. It continues to seek input and counsel from legislators and community leaders. And it has established an internal working group to address the problem, in consultation with relevant faculty groups that are the primary decision-makers on admissions policy, in a rigorous review of the method by which the university evaluates applicants.

"The downturn in our African-American admissions numbers prompted us to look very closely at the process we were using in admitting students," said Chancellor Abrams, who pushed hard for the changes. "And I concluded, apart from any question of minority admissions, that a holistic approach — in which we look at the academic factors, the personal achievements and the life challenges with regard to each application in its totality — allows you to get a better sense of the individual. It seems to me that this is a very sound approach to college admissions."

"Realistically, given the eligibility realities in California and how competitive some of our students are, it's unlikely that we're going to have a significant change in the numbers," added Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Janina Montero. "We have no idea, really, how things are going to play out. What we would like to see, ultimately, is a process that is thorough, fair, transparent and well understood by parents and students. We want everybody to feel welcome."

The Roundtable by Subject

Prop. 209 at a Glance

Luke, Johnson, Abdul-Jabar: Why They Came

Taking Action

This story was updated and revised at 12pm on 09/29/06. As part of its ongoing coverage of the admissions issue, UCLA Magazine will provide updated online content as news warrants.

The Crisis Erupts: How did it come to this?

Parker: When the figures were released with the announcement of UCLA enrolling 99 freshmen in the entering 2006 class, it became not only a major news story, but a major crisis for our campus. Today, we are going to look at how we got to where we are, what it means and where we go from here.

Montero: We have been concerned about a downward trend for quite some time. But admissions is an imprecise science, and if you look at the figures over the last five years or so, there were some ups and downs, some brought about by entirely different issues. For example, we had a smaller number of students across the board, so the [African-American] numbers were smaller, yet proportional to an overall decrease. We were hoping for larger numbers going forward.

Parker: Yolanda, what is the impact of this on alumni relations?

Nunn Gorman: Most of us came to the university because of its diversity, because of that heritage. And at this point, at least among alumni, it has been identified as a very severe crisis.

Parker: Mandla, you said at a press conference that the Black Alumni Association was outraged at the decline in freshman enrollment.

Kayise: Yes, it's been difficult over the past several months. You want African Americans to understand why you love UCLA so much because literally, they're wondering. We do feel, despite our deep connection to and love for UCLA, that we must fully express what people are expressing to us.

Taylor: I've had USC guys in my office come up and say, "I can't believe this." I went to lunch yesterday with a client who graduated from Yale, who said, "I was shocked at that number." When people outside of our family look at this as a serious problem, it deserves a strong institutional response.

Parker: Terry, what about the student perspective?

Flennaugh: I think the severity of the decline over the past years and the response — or lack thereof — from the university really makes [African-American] students feel isolated and alienated, particularly on a campus that has such a rich history of African-American alumni. They don't see themselves on campus. We'd be in a lecture hall with 300 other people, and we'd be lucky to find more than five other African Americans. And the university is not only cheating the African-American students, but the entire student population.

Lokman: We can end up at a point where talented students choose not to come here. And nobody wants that.

O'Brien: The point Terry made about the sense of a student on the campus feeling alienated affects everyone. And I do fear that unless we figure out how to fix this, and fast, we're going down a road that will erode our ability to compete for the best students — of any ethnicity.

Probing Prop. 209: A devastating impact, but is it used as an excuse?

Taylor: The University of California in general suffers from a very serious case of Prop. 209 phobia. Any idea, no matter how creative, innocent or minor, immediately gets put through a Prop. 209 filter. Furthermore, those ideas are often rejected for fear that the second big University of California phobia, litigation phobia, will envelop us. But UCLA wouldn't be the university it is today without some risk-taking, entrepreneurial administrative types who bucked the status quo to found the university in the first place.

Parker: Is Prop. 209 used as an excuse?

Taylor: It is, and it's systemwide. Just to get our biases on the table, when I was on the Board of Regents, I felt that the Office of the President bureaucracy was often a hindrance to trying to think creatively about our problems. The Office of the President often served to squash good ideas in an effort to homogenize the campuses so that they were all the same. A crazy thing to do in a state this big and diverse. Often, that's where the problem lies. You need to tell the administrators that when they take those risks, they won't be career-threatening. If an idea fails, if you've done your due diligence, OK.

Parker: Tom, maybe you can talk about how 209 does, in fact, constrain your efforts to recruit, admit and enroll African-American students and other students of color.

Lifka: It has had a devastating impact. Prior to 209, we led the system consistently, year after year, in the percentage of African-American students we enrolled, and under-represented students in general. The year after it became law, our African-American admission and enrollment dropped by 40 percent. There is no surrogate for [using race as an admission factor], particularly for the African-American UC-eligible population. They are spread evenly through the socioeconomic spectrum. So using something like low income or low parental education levels doesn't necessarily help large numbers of African-American students. It helps some. But other than our prime competitor, Berkeley, we're competing against schools like Stanford, USC and the Ivy League schools, all of whom still use race and affirmative action in their admission processes. Many also take that into account in how they award financial aid and scholarships. Then, as the lawyers looked at it after 209, it began to permeate more broadly. You couldn't set up race-based outreach programs. You couldn't set up race-based recruitment programs.

Parker: What do we mean by "UC-eligible"?

Lifka: UC-eligible is the standard established by the state's education master plan, which is that the UC schools can only admit from the top 12.5 percent of the high school graduating population in California. There's a small group admitted by exception, but it's very small.

O'Brien: Tom, isn't it true that we have put in place some of these screens or requirements — a point system — that really were intended to be a surrogate for race, but don't exactly conform to the African-American community?

Lifka: Yes.

O'Brien: And doesn't that work against what we're trying to accomplish?

Lifka: Again, we're supposed to be serving all of the students in the state. So it is proper to put in factors like low income and English as a second language.

O'Brien: First person in the family to go to college. Hardship.

Lifka: But the reality is that those criteria significantly benefit Latino students and Asian students who are recent immigrants. It does not work well to the benefit of the African-American UC-eligible pool.

Montero: It goes back to how students experience the institution. The USCs and the Ivies and so forth really put an effort into talking [to] and going after African-American students in a very welcoming, very personal way that we cannot do.

Parker: Cannot do, or will not do?

Montero: Cannot spend state money on it.

Taylor: But to what extent have we looked to try and raise private money to engage in that kind of activity?

Montero: Certainly, we have to find other ways, and there have been efforts, but the fact that we can't use state money is important. Remember, we can't even solicit outside money for this purpose.

Taylor: Says who?

Montero: Based on 209.

Taylor: That's how far the lawyers have taken the interpretation?

Montero: Yes, absolutely.

Find a New Scorecard: Do we rely too much on numbers? And what about transfers?

Kayise: If there are talented students out there that are hardworking and earning the right to attend an institution, then the question becomes not so much how do we find a surrogate for race, but how do we develop a set of criteria that effectively and fairly measures their hard work and the context in which they have achieved? Clearly, there are weaknesses in our continuing reliance on grades and test scores as the primary or, in some cases, sole measure of a student's level of merit and achievement. That should be our challenge as a public institution.

Lifka: Actually, students do get admitted in another way to UCLA where merit is defined differently, and that's at the transfer level. Even in this year of crisis, we did reasonably well with regard to African-American transfer students. At that level, we don't look at SAT scores; we don't look at high school grades. We just look at performance in the community colleges, because 90 percent of our transfers come from community colleges. And once they're here, they do as well as anybody.

Parker: Janina, what are our efforts in outreach, what we now call academic preparation and educational partnership programs? And talk about the reduction in the African-American participation in those programs due to demographic changes in the schools.

Montero: Early Academic Outreach Program [EAOP] is the premier effort from the University of California. And there was a time where the participation of African-American students in EAOP was 70 or 80 percent, but the ethnic representation of the students has changed quite radically. We are at 30 to 40 percent participation of African-American students right now. We were fortunate in that former Chancellor Carnesale allowed us to continue work on those programs, even though the state funding was decreased.

Flennaugh: I understand Chancellor Carnesale was able to find money when money was almost not there. But there are, in my opinion, student groups who have been doing work for a long time and could be better supported in a lot of ways. There have also been opportunities — even just as actions of good faith to match money from a student referendum to increase the capacity and the capabilities of these student groups — that did not happen last year.

Bring In the Bruins: What can the Task Force and Alumni do to beat the crisis?

Parker: Peter, as chair of the African American Enrollment Task Force, what are the expectations of what that group can accomplish?

Taylor: Two things. One, try to understand the root of the problem. Then, really focus on solutions. We're going to focus on what can be done immediately, and then things that can be done longer term. We don't want a repeat of 2006 in 2007. Chancellor Abrams, to his credit, is engaged with this task force and is committed to looking at creative new solutions.

Nunn Gorman: I think the engagement of students and alumni at the front end is an important part of this process. I started out in undergraduate admissions. I recruited for UCLA. The involvement in the '80s of going out and making students feel wanted and welcome has really been lost. And it has significantly impacted the way people feel about the institution.

Kayise: The perception in the African-American community is that it's not just Proposition 209; there are ways in which UCLA itself is becoming a barrier. I think it's important that we do capture the degree to which fear may cause folks in decision-making positions to overreach to comply with 209. Until we do, we can't adequately communicate to the broader community that UCLA is not exacerbating the problem. That's one of the things the task force has a responsibility to do.

Lifka: Many institutions, privates in particular, that Janina and I have had experience with use their alumni in far more systematic and aggressive ways than we have. And the reality is — I'm going to sound like a typical administrator — everything costs money. To organize those alums, to train them, to keep them consistently informed so they know about UCLA today and not when they were in school so they can have a meaningful conversation with a 17- or 18-year-old, that doesn't just happen because you ask them to do it. Some universities, as part of the application process, will have an alum interview. It has much less to do with the screening; it has everything to do with marketing and relationships. And we're not constrained from doing that by anything but money.

Nunn Gorman: It is important for African-American alumni and students to talk to African-American students, but it says something else to have other people say to these same students, "You are important at this institution. Your views are important to me." It's not just African-American alumni who are outraged. It is Latino alumni, Asian alumni, white alumni, who are saying, "What the heck is going on here?"

O'Brien: We don't have to build this from nothing. We have something called the Alumni Academy. I teach in that every year. Why not ask the Academy to focus on this as a specific curriculum? Let's bring them in to help solve it. We're a family in crisis.

Kayise: On a problem that is particularly impacting African-American students, I think we do need to disproportionately look at the ideas African-American alumni who are working in the community have about how to solve that problem.

Let the Leaders Lead: What should the administration do?

Kayise: There is a role the administration plays in pointing a direction, in articulating where we are as a campus and in guiding the faculty in the decisions they make.

Lifka: It's impossible to get away from the reality that the voice of the campus on commitment, both externally and internally, is the chancellor. That's a key component.

Parker: You're speaking of leadership and commitment. How do we take this message beyond our table and make sure this is a predominant message?

Lokman: In part, that's what we're doing here. I think it's clear even from this conversation that we have to listen better, we have to network better. People have to see and hear action. We have to utilize all of the tools we have, whether it's a magazine or community-based media, or outreach to community organizations. Those are all ways that we can be a visible presence and also build understanding and get people to work together for solutions.

O'Brien: I have a question in relation to the role of the chancellor. There is a search going on right now. It's fairly isolated from the campus and highly secret. Is this sense of crisis getting communicated in the recruitment process?

Parker: We have a responsibility that whoever that new chancellor is, to make sure the chancellor understands the context of where they're coming to in terms of history, legacy and point of time. And help reinforce that commitment, where that new chancellor has the safety net to be a risk-taker, to make some bold decisions that we might not have made in the past.

Flennaugh: This really is an opportunity for UCLA to push the envelope. How do we conceptualize merit? What does diversity really mean? How do we make students feel comfortable? And if we let this opportunity go by, it will be a tragedy.

Lokman: This is Los Angeles. If we can't be bold and entrepreneurial here, where can we be?

Lifka: You hate to think that 20 years from now, another group like this is sitting around talking about the same thing. Because the society has really failed to address the deepest roots of this problem, which go beyond what we have any immediate control over.

O'Brien: We address deeply rooted problems all the time, whether it's stem cell research or mental disorders or computer science. Our job is to take on deeply rooted social problems and make a difference. If a university like UCLA cannot do it — and there are very few universities like UCLA in the world — I don't know where it can be done.

Prop. 209 at a Glance

Proposition 209 was passed by referendum in 1996.

This law amended the California Constitution to prohibit state and other public entities, including universities and colleges, from discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to any individual or group in public employment or education, or contracting on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

The University of California (UC) was banned from using race in the admissions process. Prop. 209 was first applied to the 1998 freshman class. After it was implemented, the proportion of admitted underrepresented minorities, which includes African-American, Latino and Native-American students, fell drastically across all UC campuses.

The Office of the President has determined that the restrictions of Prop. 209 also include outreach efforts, meaning UC campuses cannot:

  • develop race-based academic preparation programs;
  • develop race-based recruitment programs;
  • provide scholarship money based on race.

Prior to 209, UCLA consistently led the UC system in the number of underrepresented minorities admitted and enrolled as freshmen. Since Prop. 209, African-American enrollment has dropped by 57 percent.

UCLA used to be a beacon for African-Americans. Three of the best and brightest recall why they chose Westwood, and how to make the campus welcome to underrepresented students again.

As a boy, Sherrill Luke '50 crashed the kids' gate at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to watch UCLA football. Today, the retired Superior Court judge remembers the excellence of athletes Jackie Robinson, Kenny Washington '41 and Woody Strode as his key inspiration to become a Bruin. When he didn't make the freshman basketball team, he became a yell leader and in 1949-'50, was UCLA's first African-American student body president.

Meanwhile, a boy from Kingsburg, Calif., was attending sporting events with his classmates at UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford and USC. A student leader since elementary school, Rafer Johnson liked to stop by the student government office when he visited a campus. At UCLA, he was pleased to discover that Luke had been student body president. "Of all the campuses I visited," he says, "UCLA was the only one with a president of color."

A four-sport star, Johnson '59 was wooed by a number of universities, but was drawn to UCLA to work with track coach "Ducky" Drake '27 to win the university's first NCAA track title. He also was inspired by the accomplishments of Robinson, his childhood hero, and Ralph Bunche '27, whom he had met. "As a student, then later as a parent, I was impressed by what UCLA encourages people to achieve," the father of two UCLA graduates says today.

So when he landed an academic scholarship, the pieces fell into place. In his sophomore year, UCLA won the NCAA title in track, and Johnson won a silver medal in the Olympic decathlon. (He went on to win the gold in 1960.) As a senior, he followed in Luke's footsteps as student body president. Today, he recalls those days as an "unbelievably great experience." While a student, Johnson was presented with Sports Illustrated's "Sportsman of the Year" award on The Ed Sullivan Show. One of those watching was an unusually tall 11-year-old named Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Although Abdul-Jabbar received personal letters from both Bunche and Robinson, encouraging him to attend UCLA, and was inspired by Bruin athletes Walt Hazzard and Gail Goodrich, he was most influenced by seeing Johnson introduced on national television, not as an Olympic athlete, but as UCLA student body president.

"That really impressed me — that he could have that kind of impact at an institution of higher learning," Abdul-Jabbar '69 said later. "It showed me what UCLA was about in terms of being an equal-opportunity kind of place."

Luke, Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar have all expressed their views on diversity and its importance at UCLA. "Seeing and experiencing how other people live is an unbelievable life experience," Johnson says.

"It opens our eyes to people who are in many ways just like we are, and helps us recognize the importance of participating in the world community."

Luke adds that diversity is critical if UCLA is to "be reflective of the world in which we live. The vast reservoir of intelligence in minority communities must be cultivated in order for academic potential to be fully realized." He stresses the need for a concerted effort to level the playing field and urges improvement of the state's K–12 education, redesign of the SAT tests and a more "evenhanded" approach to evaluation of admission applications.

Abdul-Jabbar points to programs like the Jackie Robinson Foundation's outreach to predominantly black schools that produce qualified students. He also believes that more publications and speakers showcasing prominent African-American alumni would raise awareness of the opportunities UCLA offers students of all backgrounds. And he notes how much personal letters, like those he received from Bunche and Robinson, mean to prospective students.

— Mary Daily

Reach Out and Teach Someone

For more information on these efforts, log on to UCLA's Student Affairs Web site and at the UC's prep Web site.

Through more than two dozen programs, UCLA and its professional schools help prepare students to apply and be admitted to UCLA and to flourish after they arrive on campus. And UCLA Chancellor Norman Abrams and community leaders have formed the African American Enrollment Task Force to find and recommend solutions to the admissions crisis. The Academic Senate, which determines admissions policy, has launched a rigorous examination of the university's review procedure.

Addressing the Crisis

  • UCLA African American Enrollment Task Force
    Composed of student, community, faculty, administrative and alumni leaders, the Task Force counsels the chancellor, administration and Academic Senate on ideas to expand the pool of available students; improve the current UCLA admissions process; improve the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll; and review efforts to ensure that African-American students achieve academic success.
  • Academic Senate Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools Subcommittee
    Members from the faculty committee on undergraduate admissions and the undergraduate admissions office are studying the admission-selection criteria used at UCLA and the impact of selection criteria on the composition of admitted freshmen. They have recommended that the university adopt a “holistic” review process, the preferred method of evaluation at Berkeley and the Ivy League universities. That recommendation is awaiting approval by the Academic Senate and could go into effect as early as next year.

Ongoing Academic Preparation Programs (partial list)

  • Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP)
    EAOP operates in 92 schools in Los Angeles County to promote and cultivate a college-going culture.
  • Student Initiated Access Center (SIAC)
    UCLA students work weekly with students in grades K–12 in educationally disadvantaged areas, providing tutoring, skills-building and workshops.
  • The Vice Provost Initiative for Pre-College Scholars (VIPS)
    This partnership with the Los Angeles and Pasadena school districts helps prepare historically underrepresented students in grades 9–12 to become competitively eligible for admission to UCLA.
  • The UCLA Center for Community College Partnerships (CCCP)
    The center works with community colleges to improve students' academic competitiveness for admission to the university and to increase the diversity of UCLA's transfer-admit pool.
  • East Los Angeles College Summer Immersion Program
    A collaboration between the Youth Opportunity Movement, East Los Angeles College and UCLA, this 16-day program requires participants to complete a three-unit UC/CSU-transferable course in a two-week period.
  • Academic Advancement Program (AAP)
    The AAP Freshman Scholars and Transfer Scholars Days welcomes admitted students and their families to campus in an effort to increase enrollment at UCLA.
  • BruinCorps
    This Student Affairs program provides tutoring and mentoring to children and youth in grades pre-K–12 at schools and community organizations in East, South, West and downtown Los Angeles.