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By Stephen Bainbridge : BIO| 20 Nov 2020
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No sooner had Michigan voters passed Proposition 2, which bans affirmative action by state institutions in education, employment, and contracting, than University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman went to the University's famous Diag to issue a defiant blast. In a scene eerily mirroring Southern governors standing in school doors, Coleman announced a campaign of massive resistance to Proposition 2:

"I am deeply disappointed that the voters of our state have rejected affirmative action as a way to help build a community that is fair and equal for all. But we will not be deterred in the all-important work of creating a diverse, welcoming campus. We will not be deterred."[1]

Coleman plans a legal challenge to Proposition 2, but the odds are stacked against her. Michigan's Proposition 2 essentially tracks California's Proposition 209, which has been upheld by the courts against legal challenges.

Once the legal dust settles, the University of Michigan likely will look to the University of California's experience under Proposition 209 as a model.

The UC system has made no secret of its desire to preserve racial diversity on its campus. As UC President Richard Atkinson once explained:

"When race and ethnicity were disallowed, UC launched a greatly intensified program of outreach to public schools, working in partnership to improve academic performance and college eligibility in schools that traditionally sent few students to UC. We also made changes in our admissions process — such as granting UC eligibility to the top 4% of students in every California high school."[2]

The representation of certain minority groups in the UCLA student body dropped after 209 passed, especially African-Americans and Latinos, as it did at other UC campuses. Although Latino representation has increased somewhat in recent years, African-American enrollment at UCLA remains well below its pre-209 level. Clearly, the University administration is dissatisfied. According to and article in UCLA Today:

[Former UCLA Albert Chancellor] Carnesale ... calls the dearth of African-American faces among UCLA students "one of two critical challenges facing the university" alongside the need for increased financial resources.

"There is no question in my mind that my successor must be committed to meeting this challenge head-on," Carnesale said in a June 5 letter to members of the UCLA Afrikan Student Union, who met with the chancellor June 2 following a student demonstration.

It's with this background in mind that we must evaluate UCLA's recent decision to adopt a so-called holistic admission policy. UCLA's Janina Montero described the school's policy this way:

Under the new model, the review of each application will be an integrated process that will consider the full record of a student's achievements and experiences, as well as the challenges faced, and provide a more carefully individualized and qualitative assessment.[3]

And according to UCLA's News Office:

"Holistic review is another philosophical approach to implementing comprehensive review, and it will allow us the opportunity to have applications reviewed in their entirety so that all of a student's achievements — from academic performance to leadership skills and community services — can be looked at in the context of their life experiences," said Jenny Sharpe, chair of the faculty Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Relations with Schools.[4]

It's clear that the continued low levels of African-Americans in the UCLA student body was the "catalyst" for this change.[5]

But why do UCLA administrators think holistic review will address that problem? If consideration of race is excluded from the process, do the life experiences and personal achievements of underrepresented minorities systematically differ from those of whites or Asian-Americans? To be sure, an African-American who excels despite growing up in an economically disadvantaged home has overcome important challenges relative to some privileged Beverly Hills High white student. But so has a white child from a family below the poverty line or an Asian-American from an immigrant family. In other words, if applied without regard to race, holistic admission should affect class differences in the student body rather than racial ones.

As commentator Lance Izumi observes, however, UC Berkeley's experience with its similar system of comprehensive review suggests that holistic admissions in fact will affect the racial composition of the student body:

Although race is not overtly mentioned as a factor in the comprehensive-review admissions process, the numbers indicate that it plays a significant role. A Los Angeles Times analysis shows that at UC Berkeley, low-scoring blacks and Hispanics were admitted at twice the rate of similarly scoring Asians and whites.[6]

A cynic thus might wonder whether the readers charged with holistically evaluating admission files share UM President Coleman's refusal to "stand by while the very heart and soul of this great university is threatened," and are taking into account the race of candidates despite Proposition 209's ban. Indeed, when Berkeley adopted comprehensive review, student activist Hoku Jeffrey noted that it gave "admissions officials the ability on paper to reverse the segregation ... and that's what must be done."[7]

The trouble with holistic admissions is that the readers don't have to explain why they make their admission decisions. They simply score the files. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the readers thus could systematically bias their scores so as to promote diversity, and no one would be the wiser. Even if required to offer an explanation for their scores, moreover, readers likely would point to some wrinkle other than race in each application that purportedly justified their decision.

It's a sure bet that UM officials will look to the UC as a model for dealing with Proposition 2. When they do so, Michigan voters should insist on a far greater degree of transparency and accountability than California voters have received.

[1] Mary Sue Cleman, Diversity Matters at Michigan (Nov. 8, 2006), available at http://www.umich.edu/pres/speeches/061103div.html

[2] Richard C. Atkinson, Efforts to Reflect Diversity Fall Short (2003), available at http://www.today.ucla.edu/2003/030513efforts.html

[3] Janina Montero, Holistic Evaluation Makes Admissions Fair, UCLA Today (Oct. 24, 2006), available at http://www.today.ucla.edu/voices/janina-montero_admissions/

[4] UCLA News Office Press Release, UCLA Adopts a Holistic Approach to Reviewing Freshman Applications; Change Is Most Sweeping Since Systemwide Revisions Five Years Ago (Sept. 28, 2006), available at http://newsroom.ucla.edu/page.asp?RelNum=7375

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lance T. Izumi, Berkeley's "F": Unfair admissions game, Nat'l Rev. Online (Nov. 24, 2003), available at http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/izumi200311240932.asp

[7] Eric Ostrem, Regents Committee Passes Comprehensive Admissions, Daily Californian (Nov. 15, 2001), available at http://www.dailycal.org/sharticle.php?id=7076

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