University of California at Berkeley

A Debate on Affirmative Action

Boalt Hall Forum Airs Pros and Cons of Proposition 209

 by Fernando Quintero

For his latest visit to campus, Tom Wood, co-author of the controversial California Civil Rights Initiative, Proposition 209, was accompanied by a high-profile opponent of affirmative action.

The Oct. 10 forum at Boalt Hall featured Linda Chavez, the former chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and conservative columnist for USA Today.

Wood first visited the campus as part of a panel discussion over the proposed amendment last April at the Graduate School of Public Policy, which, like the Boalt Hall debate, was organized by students.

Both Berkeley forums were a marked contrast to a similar debate held last month at California State University at Northridge in which former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke represented the pro-209 side.

Except for occasional hissing for 209 supporters and frequent applause for opponents, the mostly student audience at last week's debate allowed for a lively and civil discussion of the initiative on the November ballot, which would outlaw race and gender considerations in higher education enrollment as well as in most public hiring and contracting.

Wood and Chavez were joined on the pro-209 panel by John Yoo, an assistant professor at Boalt Hall who worked as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas two years ago.

Speaking against the proposition were panelists Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority and former president of the National Organization for Women; Eileen Hernandez, a former official with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and also former president of the National Organization for Women; and David Oppenheimer, a law professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Wood reiterated his message that "anyone opposed to the initiative is in favor of discrimination."

"You don't solve racism by using race to decide who gets a job, a public contract or into school," said Chavez.

Yoo provided legal argument for the constitutionality of the proposition. "CCRI is declaratory.

"It is well within the rights and duties of the people of California to declare what rights and principles they believe in," he said.

Smeal, Hernandez and Oppenheimer countered with their belief that affirmative action should not be repealed as long as societal discrimination against women and minorities continues to exist.

"This is not a local issue. This is a national issue, an attempt to change the U.S. Constitution.

"This is a national drive to drive us backward," said Smeal.

Chavez presented a report that alleges a "greater degree of racial preferences in the admissions process at Berkeley than is usually assumed."

But the analysis of freshman admissions on campus issued by the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington, D.C., is based on erroneous data, campus officials were quick to respond.

Bob Laird, director of Undergraduate Admission and Relations With Schools, who was on hand at the debate to answer questions about the report, said the study contains "gross errors."

"For example, the report cites that Berkeley had an applicant pool of 9,949 in the fall of 1983. The actual number was 18,802.

"Likewise, for fall 1995, the report states the applicant pool was 12,194 when in fact it was 22,811," said Laird.

"Errors of this magnitude are sprinkled throughout the report, leading anyone to question the veracity of its conclusions."

Chavez said the data came straight from Berkeley enrollment officials.

"If the numbers are doctored up, they came that way," she argued.

But Laird later responded: "We gave them accurate data.

"I'm just not sure what they did with it.

"Their numbers look like they belong to some other university, not ours."

In addition, the study falsely implies that grades and test scores are the appropriate measures of achievement, and that race and ethnicity are the only factors given weight at Berkeley, said Laird.

Oppenheimer elicited the loudest applause when he commented: "I want to say something to the minority students in the audience: Don't let claims like this undercut your self-esteem. You deserve to be here. You are qualified."

Last week's forum was sponsored by student groups, Boalt Hall and the Voice of the Voter, a project of the San Francisco Chronicle, KRON-TV and KQED Radio.


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