Affirmative Action: Speaking Out

by Chang-Lin Tien

Affirmative action is once again on the front burner in this country. Because our campus is renowned for having achieved both excellence and diversity, we have become a national focal point in the debate.

Affirmative action questions inevitably surface in difficult economic times. On our campus, it strikes home because demand for affordable, top-quality public higher education is soaring while our capacity to accept students has reached a limit. Students--and their parents--become justifiably frustrated when they are denied access to Berkeley.

The debate is not new. In the late 1970s, Berkeley was criticized by the federal government for not doing enough to address racial inequality. By the late 1980s, we were criticized for doing too much.

Now, there are serious proposals to do away with affirmative action. I don't agree with the simplistic proposals to eliminate completely affirmative action.

The issue of student admissions is of particular concern to me. I remain convinced that a key element to Berkeley's excellence is its diversity because we are a public institution in a state with a diverse population and rapidly changing demographics. It is a conclusion grounded in the wealth of successes recorded by our campus.

One myth fueling the affirmative action debate is the notion that by actively seeking a wider range of students, we have lowered our standards and have sacrificed our academic excellence.

That is not true. Berkeley continues to achieve both excellence and diversity--equitably and without compromising quality.

The 1994 fall freshman class is stronger academically from top to bottom than the freshman class of 10 years ago. In fact, 95 percent of our 1994 freshman class graduated in the top 10 percent of their high schools. This percentage is among the highest in the country.

And the pool of highly qualified students we choose from continues to grow. The reality is we will have to turn away thousands of gifted students no matter which selection process we use. For the fall '95 semester, we received 22,600 freshman applications, nearly all UC eligible as defined by the state's Master Plan for Higher Education. We will admit 8,840 freshmen in order to enroll 3,470.

Because our selection process is both complex and highly personal, our admissions process is constantly being reviewed to ensure fairness. The current discussion among UC Regents is one more instance of this ongoing review--a reassessment that we welcome.

Currently, 50 percent of our students are selected strictly on the basis of their SAT scores and their high school grade-point average--a mean average of 1225 on the SAT and a mean 3.84 Grade Point Average for our current freshmen. This is much higher than other leading universities.

The rest are selected through a process that, in addition to academic scores and personal essays, takes into account many factors--including economic, racial, ethnic, socio-economic circumstances, and residency in rural parts of the state, disabilities and special talents.

Our success in efficiently educating a diverse group of highly qualified students is also demonstrated by our graduation rates that have climbed steadily over the past 10 years for all students. Seventy-nine percent of our students graduate within six years. In the mid-1950s, when entrance to Berkeley was not nearly as competitive, just 55 percent of our students graduated within six years.

But numbers aren't the full story. As a public institution, we are charged to educate students who not only encompass the racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity of our state, but who will lead California and its people into the next century. We take this charge very seriously.

A university can only succeed when it provides an environment in which students represent a broad range of values, backgrounds and viewpoints.

This is an integral part of the stimulating intellectual and cultural environment in which students educate each other and learn to exist and grow in a world that has become increasingly diverse.

This is why California policy makers and the Board of Regents have mandated admission policies that require that our student population encompass the diversity of California.

I believe that Berkeley, as a great public university, must take action to recruit a student body that encompasses the diversity of the public it serves and meets the future needs of the taxpayers who support it.

I believe that it must take action to safeguard its academic excellence and international pre-eminence.

Finally, I believe it must take actions that are fair and equitable to all qualified students.

To achieve these goals is not a simple, short-term task.

Indeed, all affirmative action policies must have periodic, systematic evaluation.

However, I believe we should exercise extreme caution in the changes we make lest we too narrowly define merit and erode the equality of opportunity that has served this state so well.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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