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Silence at Boalt Hall The Dismantling of Affirmative Action

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Preface

I was among the last beneficiaries of affirmative action at Boalt Hallñthe prestigious law school at the University of California at Berkeley. Though I was a strong student and scored well on the law school entrance exam, my grades and test scores alone were not enough to win me a seat at the highly selective law school. However, I was accomplished in many other ways, and I had more to offer than just good grades and test scores. In addition, I was Mexican American and viewed the world from a different perspective. I came from a bicultural and bilingual background and in part because of this fact I was admitted to Boalt Hall.

For thirty years, Boalt had used affirmative action to admit others like meñhistorically underrepresented minoritiesñwho were capable of succeeding in law school but were not able to survive the extremely competitive admissions process. As a result of race-conscious policies, the law school became one of the most diverse in the country, educating a generation of minorityñas well as nonminorityñlawyers, judges, politicians, professors, and civic leaders. However, in 1995, the Board of Regents voted to end affirmative action at the University of California, and, one year later, the electorate voted to do the same across the state of California. Consequently, my class was the last to be admitted under affirmative action at the law school.

In my three years at Boalt, I watched the law school as it was forced to dismantle its affirmative action programña program from which I had benefitedñand I watched the numbers of minority students plummet. I joined student activists in the struggle to maintain diversity. From policy proposals to public protests and political campaigns, we poured our energy into keeping the doors of the law school open. Although these efforts helped to prompt important changes in the admissions policy, they were not enough to keep those doors from whispering shut for many minority students.

Though California was the first state to end affirmative action in higher education, other states have since followed suit. By ballot initiative, court order, and regent vote, at least four other statesñTexas, Washington, Florida, and Georgiañhave eliminated race-conscious admissions policies at their public universities. At the most competitive of these campuses, "race-blind" policies have yielded far fewer underrepresented minorities than previous race-conscious policies. In the worst instances, the numbers of underrepresented minorities have fallen by more than half, prompting a closer examination of traditional admissions criteria.

The results of "race-blind" policies have been far from race-neutral and have raised the question that first led to the implementation of affirmative action: How can a highly competitive university admit a talented and diverse student body? The answer to this question may lie somewhere in the past. By design and by default, traditional admissions criteria have failed to adequately identify promising minority candidates. The two principal criteriañgrade point averages and standardized test scoresñhave been shown to be neither sufficiently valid nor truly objective measures of merit. Standardized test scores in particular appear to correlate more with race than with academic or professional success and seem to have a disparate and discriminatory impact on minority students. Nevertheless, schools such as Boalt continue to use them.

Before it was eliminated, affirmative action countered the prejudicial effects of traditional criteria by allowing school administrators to look beyond sheer numbers to admit talented minority students. Race-conscious policies were constructed to be a temporary measure that would end when racial bias was eradicated and racial diversity occurred naturally in the admissions process. But affirmative action programs were cut short in California, and university administrators have since been unwilling or unable to address the bias in traditional admissions criteria, resulting in the decimation of the minority population at Boalt and other competitive campuses of the University of California.

At a time when admissions criteria are coming under closer scrutiny, the issue of affirmative action appears headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. Several reverse discrimination cases are currently making their way through the judicial system and challenging university race-conscious admissions policies. Two of these casesñboth brought against the University of Michiganñare expected to become the national vehicles for deciding whether and how universities can use affirmative action. The Supreme Court has not considered race-conscious admissions policies since the Bakke case in 1978, when the court upheld the use of such policies on very narrow grounds. Recently, however, several lower federal district courts and courts of appeals have differed on the interpretation of Bakke, using it both to affirm and negate the continuing permissibility of race-conscious policies. With an interest in resolving these differences, the Supreme Court is likely to review the matter in the near future.

With so much at stake in the evaluation of affirmative action, an examination of how it has worked and who it has affected is essential. This book is my attempt to tell the story of one institutionñBoalt Hallñas it has struggled to make itself more representative of and more relevant to a changing populace. I have done my best to provide the context necessary to understand this story, even though in some instances my access to information was limited. I have also tried to include a range of perspectives on the issue of affirmative action, but in no way are these perspectives comprehensive. This book is neither a general history of affirmative action, nor is it a rigorous study of admissions criteria. Instead, nestled between the arguments for and against race-conscious policies, it is the story, told over thirty years, of those who benefited from affirmative action and those who suffered from its removal. It includes the voices of various students, faculty, and administrators who ground a theoretical debate in realityñthe reality of an institution that was among the first to implement affirmative action policies and among the first to be forced to remove them. The voices from Boalt Hall inform the debate.

As the nation confronts one of the most pivotal and controversial issues of our timeñracial diversity in higher educationñthe story of Boalt Hall provides insights into the future as well as the past. The antecedents and outcomes of this story have implications for educational institutions across the country. It is my hope that the reader will use this story to rethink the dismantling of affirmative action and help set the country on a path that will open wide the doors of higher education for students of all racial backgrounds and not just the privileged few. In an increasingly diverse nation, we cannot afford to do otherwise.