E Pluribus California

We are saddened, but not surprised, by news that admissions of minority students to the University of California have dropped sharply.

That drop was widely expected. It happened. Now it's time to move forward - not backward - to a solution.

First, a reminder of the facts:

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In 1995 the regents of America's most famous public university system voted to change an affirmative-action admissions policy that had aided minority students. In its place the regents installed a "color blind" admissions policy with allowances for students with disadvantaged backgrounds. Then, in late 1996, Californians passed a referendum prohibiting use of race or ethnicity as admissions criteria.

From 1997 to 1998, the percentage of Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and American Indians admitted to the Berkeley campus dropped from 23.1 to 10.4 percent. At the almost-as-prestigious Los Angeles campus, the drop was 19.8 to 12.7. On only two of the remaining six campuses did minority admissions rise.

Statistics and fairness

Should something be done? Yes. Should it be a return to straight minority preferences? No.

Why not? Because that solution creates a further problem. An injustice occurs if an otherwise unqualified, privately schooled son of a black film star or daughter of a Chicano computer exec displaces a better qualified Vietnamese-American applicant from a sweatshop neighborhood.

Critics berating California's odyssey in search of a level playing field say that statistically such examples would be rare events. Granted. But statistics shouldn't be an excuse for a new unfairness.

Rationing admissions

What's needed is a further move toward carefully designed guidelines to admit disadvantaged students who show concrete signs of ability, drive, and determination to overcome their past. That includes deprived white as well as racial and ethnic minority students. Any student who shows the grit to conquer the handicap of a broken home, gang-plagued neighborhood, or decaying school.

But doesn't this put the admissions committee at each campus in the position of rationing this passport to a better life? Of course. That's what admissions offices do already. Millions of high school students, alas, can't all fit into UC Berkeley or Michigan State.

OK. But isn't such favorable treatment just affirmative action for a minority group called Disadvantaged-Americans? No. That's no group. It's simply youths from diverse backgrounds who proved they had the stuff to outgrow deprivations. That might include a melting pot of hyphenated Americans: an African-American from East Palo Alto or Watts, a white from Needles or Richmond, a native American from Yreka, a Chicano from East Los Angeles.

A stream of new strivers

Wouldn't UC's eight campuses, home to Nobelists and great departments, be flooded with students from high-risk backgrounds? No, not flooded, just interwoven with some new strivers to join the current majority of white and Asian strivers.

Part of the program, in California and elsewhere, should be pre-freshman-year courses designed to help admittees from deprived backgrounds to get up to speed where needed.

Another vital step: Countering I'll-never-make-it-from-barrio-to-Berkeley pessimism. Broadcasts, posters, guidance counselors, community and parent-teacher organization advisers, Sunday school teachers, and summer employers should be enlisted to inspire the ambition to work hard and aim high.

Character, not skin color

No nation in history has adopted a better motto, a nobler aim, than e pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

Previous multiethnic states, from Roman Empire to Romanov-turned-Stalinist empire, yoked the pluribus (Nubians and Gauls, or Tatars and Kazaks) not to a unum of equal opportunity but as vassals to an all-powerful state, emperor, or dictator.

No oratorical snapshot better captures the spirit of the American aim than Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. His majestic words foresaw an America where his children - all children - would not be "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Persist in refining standards

For reasons ranging from noble to fearful, Californians seem headed toward that kind of color-blind fairness in higher education. Rather than balk, university administrators should persist in refining standards for admissions to such a system.

More than ever, a college degree tends to determine careers and life achievement. Finding students who will best grow into those degrees should become less a search for skin pigment and correct hyphens and more a search for future Jessye Normans, Luis Alvarezes, Ralph Bunches, and Jerry Yangs. Then, at last, we may more accurately say: Only in America.

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