A Steady Hand


By Mary Daily

Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM

A Balanced View

From day one, Abrams faced major issues — very public ones — and met them all with quiet confidence, determined to be fair to all sides. "Norm always seeks a win-win situation," says Interim Vice Chancellor of External Affairs Rhea Turteltaub.

In just one year, Abrams had plenty of chances to practice that art. Last summer, he faced the harassment of faculty conducting research on primates, including attempted attacks on researchers' homes. An expert in anti-terrorism law, Abrams called it "domestic terrorism." He affirmed to the campus and to the public that the university encourages free speech and differing opinions, but does not tolerate violence and harassment. He lobbied for the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, to make violence and intimidation toward researchers working with animals a federal crime. The bill was passed in November.

"Norm was willing to make the decision that was best for UCLA, even when it was controversial," says Administrative Vice Chancellor Sam Morabito.

When Abrams took office in July, African-American freshman enrollment had reached its lowest level in more than 30 years — only 2 percent of students who indicated an intent to enroll in the Fall 2006 undergraduate class were black — causing consternation among existing students, faculty, administrators and alumni. The media covered the story extensively, and many in the local community were adamant that something be done.

A vocal advocate of the importance of diversity, Abrams went to work to correct any misperceptions that UCLA was not welcoming to African Americans and other underrepresented groups, and to urge a refinement to the admissions process to make it fairer to all applicants.

He worked with UCLA's Academic Senate to switch to a "holistic" approach in the way applications were reviewed — the same approach used by UC Berkeley, Ivy League institutions and others. Holistic review involves a review of an applicant's entire application by the same readers — instead of different readers reading separate parts of each application, which had been UCLA practice — and is believed to be fairer and better achieves the goals of UC's comprehensive-review admissions policy. Abrams' office covered the added cost.

Abrams assembled a task force of campus representatives, alumni and community leaders to provide counsel to the campus and to promote discussion with the African-American community. Former UC Regent Peter Taylor '80 chairs the group. The chancellor also wrote to counselors at predominantly black high schools that he was distressed by reports that some were telling students that UCLA wasn't interested in them. "Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. He visited schools to reiterate his message.

The result? Black freshman enrollment doubled from 2006 to 2007, with African-Americans making up more than 4 percent of the initial intent-to-enroll numbers.

"The issue was front and center in the press," recalls task force member Blair Taylor M.B.A. '90. "Was the chancellor going to act, or forgo the opportunity to take on a challenging role? Norm took the forward-thinking approach."

While still being cognizant of and compliant with legal proscriptions, "you can't be passive in a position of leadership," Abrams concludes.

Abrams' response was "a turning point for UCLA's place in the community," says Janina Montero, vice chancellor for student affairs. "He has been not only a leader, but a mentor."