As a senior honors student at Weston Ranch High School in Stockton, Calif., last spring, Lakea Youngblood gained admission to the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles, California’s two most sought-after public universities. While both schools offered the northern California native similar financial aid packages, UC Berkeley proved highly enticing to Youngblood given the school’s sterling academic reputation and its close proximity to her family home.
Nonetheless, UCLA readily won over Youngblood because of her interest in studying broadcast journalism in the media-saturated environment of Los Angeles and an effective outreach effort mounted by Black UCLA graduates, current students and others concerned about declining Black student enrollment. In addition to Youngblood’s financial aid package offered by UCLA, a foundation representing UCLA’s Black alumni and other supporters of the Black student outreach offered her a first-year $1,000 scholarship. The privately funded scholarship and the discussions she had with Black alumni sent a compelling message.
“I felt the UCLA outreach was tremendous. It really made me feel good about my decision to enroll there,” Youngblood says.
The outreach to Black students such as Youngblood became part of a larger story after Black freshman student enrollment at UCLA this fall saw a dramatic reversal after several years of decline. Blacks enrolling as freshmen this fall numbered 203 out of 4,564, or about 4.5 percent. In the fall of 2006, just 100 Blacks enrolled in a freshman class of 4,809, or roughly 2.1 percent.
UCLA alumni, students, community leaders and numerous individuals in Southern California believed that Black freshman enrollment in 2006 had reached a crisis point. Attributing the enrollment decline largely to the impact of Proposition 209, a voter-approved 1996 law that banned public institutions from considering race, ethnicity and gender in academic admissions, a wide range of groups and individuals banded together to address the admissions and enrollment of Black students at UCLA.
The force of their efforts, in coordination with those of UCLA and University of California system officials, resulted in the adoption of a new admissions process emphasizing holistic assessments of applicants. The efforts also launched a privately organized and funded affirmative action outreach campaign targeted towards Black students.
“I think (the response by the community) was extremely significant above and beyond the crisis of Black student enrollment. The number of organizations that came together may have been unprecedented,” says Dr. Richard Yarborough, an associate professor of English and African-American studies at UCLA.
For higher education diversity advocates, the community response to the UCLA Black admissions crisis marks what many are seeing as an innovative step for affirmative action in places where public institutions are prohibited from considering race in admissions and having racially focused academic programs. Advocates are assessing whether private efforts by groups and individuals can make up for the targeted activities and scholarship funding public institutions were once allowed to provide for Blacks and other underrepresented minorities.
In response, critics are questioning the legality of “outsourced” affirmative action occurring at institutions where race-conscious admissions have been banned. They also contend that even if privately sponsored, racially targeted scholarships and racially specific outreach activities do not run afoul of state affirmative action bans or federal civil rights laws, it’s morally wrong to exclude members of any racial group from being considered for an academic program or benefit.
Few flagship state universities have as long or as rich a tradition of educating Black students as has UCLA. When many state institutions, particularly those in the South, barred Black students, UCLA’s doors were open. Distinguished former students now deceased include Tom Bradley, the first and only Black mayor of Los Angeles; Jackie Robinson, the Black player who broke through Major League Baseball’s color line in the 20th century; Dr. Ralph Bunche, the Nobel Peace prize-winning Black diplomat and political scientist who helped negotiate groundbreaking peace agreements in the Middle East in the 1940s; and tennis great Arthur Ashe, the first and only Black man to win the Wimbledon tournament. In addition to Bradley and Bunche, the late former U.S. Congressman Augustus F. Hawkins and Yvonne B. Burke, a Los Angeles County Supervisor and a former U.S. Congresswoman, are other politically influential Blacks who studied at UCLA.
“The Black community has enjoyed a strong and long-lasting relationship with UCLA. There’s been a notable presence of Blacks at UCLA going back to the 1920s,” Yarborough says.
Given the deep association between influential Black Californians and UCLA, observers say that it proved logical that Black community groups and Black alumni would organize and enlist UCLA and state officials in an effort to address declining Black enrollment at the university. When the news media reported in the spring of 2006 that 96 Black students would be enrolling in the fall, a group of UCLA students staged a campus protest. That same spring, a coalition of community groups, known as the Alliance for Equal Opportunity in Education, also sprang into action.
“With each passing year (since Proposition 209’s passage), the numbers of underrepresented minorities started to dwindle to the point where last year’s freshman class had the lowest enrollment of African-Americans since at least 1973,” says Dr. Darnell Hunt, the director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA.
Hunt recalls that in the spring of 2006 he shared with Alliance leaders the center’s published reports that had documented the impact of Proposition 209. With the support of the Ford Foundation going back to 2002, the Bunche Center had studied Proposition 209, and it found fault with the UCLA admissions office for not having moved to a holistic assessment system as had UC Berkeley. The center contended that a holistic assessment, which evaluates student applicants within the context of educational circumstances, opportunities and challenges, would produce a more equitable admissions process for all students.
“We had been doing research on this for the last several years. And we had been releasing reports, but they didn’t get a lot of traction because people didn’t see it as a crisis situation … When Black freshman enrollment hit less than 100, and it’s on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, suddenly there was a crisis. I think that mobilized people and it led directly to the creation of the Alliance,” Hunt explains.
Rev. Brenda Lamothe, a staff minister at the First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, says her church was among the several community groups that joined the Alliance and remained in the coalition. The church has a reputation for community activism and leadership, Lamothe notes.
“We’re one of the first places people come to where there is an issue that needs to be addressed — because of our reputation and our history,” she says, adding that her own daughter is a UCLA undergraduate.
“For me, it was personal as my daughter had applied to UCLA and she was able to get into UCLA … It was close to my heart because I had learned more about what was going on at UCLA from my daughter,” Lamothe explains.
In addition to the First A.M.E. Church, other Alliance groups include the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, the Brotherhood Crusade, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Urban League and the UCLA Black Alumni Association.
The Alliance moved quickly, and its members met with university, city and state officials, including the University of California Board of Regents, to lobby for change in the admissions process.
“I think the Alliance from the very beginning had one primary goal, and their goal was to change the admissions process at was to change the admissions process at UCLA into something they thought was fairer and that would give African-American applicants a better read when they apply to the school,” Hunt says.
By the fall of 2006, the UCLA administration announced it would adopt a holistic review in its admissions process for the fall 2007 entering freshman class.
“The UCLA Academic Senate made the change because the faculty believed a more individualized and qualitative assessment of each applicant’s entire application would better achieve the goals of comprehensive review. Under the holistic model, each application is now read and considered in its entirety by two trained readers; in previous years, two readers reviewed student academic records while a third reviewed life challenges and other achievements,” according to the university.
The school also created the UCLA African American Alumni and Community Support Task Force, a committee of community representatives and UCLA faculty members and administrators, to advise the chancellor and to work with community groups and alumni on the Black student enrollment decline issue.
Hunt, who is a member of the task force, says the group has operated under tight restrictions. The university was “saying there isn’t much of anything we can do proactively other than study the situation to see whether we’re doing anything” that’s leading to continued declines in Black freshman enrollment, according to Hunt.
“From the very beginning, the task force was more interested in what can friends of the university do, because the university can’t legally do anything given the Proposition 209 restrictions. What can friends of the university do to encourage African-American students who have been admitted to actually come?” Hunt says.
In addition to key university officials and community representatives, UCLA invited influential UCLA alumni and experienced business executives to participate on the task force. One such individual is Peter Taylor, a Los Angeles businessman and UCLA alum who chairs the task force. Taylor is a former UC regent and a former president of the UCLA Alumni Association. Another is William Holland, the vice president for workforce planning and analysis at the Hilton Hotels Corp.
“I’m a three-time USC graduate. But I have chaired the UCLA-Jackie Robinson Scholarship Selection Committee and have been involved with that for the past 24 years. And so I’ll go basically where I need to go to try to help more kids obtain a quality education,” Holland says.
After it was recognized that private funding could help boost the yield of admitted students enrolling at UCLA, the talents and connections of Blacks, such as Taylor and Holland, proved beneficial. In addition to advising university officials about recruitment and admissions matters, some task force members have taken on the responsibility of leading the private effort to raise scholarship monies.
“We had an increase in the number of applications from and admissions of African- American students. The challenge then was to encourage as many of them who had been admitted to come to UCLA. And that’s where the scholarships had an important impact,” says Dr. Janina Montero, UCLA’s vice chancellor for student affairs.
Taylor says that alumni and corporate support has so far helped generate $1.8 million in cash and pledges, $1.2 million of which was awarded to Black students enrolling this fall. A one-time award of $1,000 went to twothirds of the 203 students and the other third got a commitment for renewable scholarships in addition to at least a first-year $1,000 award, Taylor says.
“One of the things we said to folks in the African-American community is that it’s one thing to be angry about the fact that Proposition 209 is in place — the fact that affirmative action as we grew up with is no longer legal — but at some point you have to get over that and come up with a plan B,” Taylor says.
The Path Ahead
Affirmative action opponents have regarded the actions of UCLA and university supporters with suspicion. After learning that UCLA had increased total admission offers to Black students from 249 in 2006 to 392 in 2007, Ward Connerly Jr., a former UC regent and leading proponent of Proposition 209, told the Los Angeles Times that “one of three things must be happening. Black kids have either gotten extremely smart or extremely competitive in a way they weren’t five or six years ago, or there’s been a deliberate, carefully orchestrated effort by a lot of admissions people to conspire to increase those numbers, or they’ve found a proxy for race.” Roger Clegg, the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Virginia-based advocacy organization that opposes race-conscious affirmative action, says his organization has serious concerns with alumni-funded scholarships that have sprung up for Black students at UCLA and other campuses.
“One concern regarding legality is whether the university itself is involved with the scholarship process. If they help in the selection of candidates or are sending names of possible recipients on to a third party, those are problems of illegality by the university,” Clegg says.
“Even if it’s not illegal, it’s wrong for a private organization to be engaging in racial discrimination … I don’t think anybody can deny that a scholarship that is available only to members of a particular race is racially discriminatory,” he adds.
Taylor dismisses the idea that UCLA is violating the law and affirms that “even amongst the broader public, however they feel about affirmative action, there is a sense that private money can be spent to support communities.”
“We’re independent from the university. We get no support from the university — no financial support, no staff support,” Taylor says. “How can (affirmative action opponents) stop private citizens from putting their own money into a pot trying to help kids?”
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Division Director, Division of Graduate Education
National Science Foundation
Dean of the College of Social Work
The University of Tennessee Knoxville
Dean of the Tickle College of Engineering
The University of Tennessee Knoxville