THE debate over affirmative action takes on a special poignancy with regard to higher education. Colleges and universities are gateways to success, as well as engines of social change. Hence the importance of the decision by the regents of the University of California to eliminate "race, religion, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin" from its admissions or hiring criteria.
Some critics view this simply as a tactical move by California Gov. Pete Wilson, a contender for the GOP presidential nomination and a onetime supporter of affirmative action. But Governor Wilson only seized the issue, he didn't create it. The resolution to end affirmative action was proposed by regent Ward Connerly, an African-American who believes the current policy has outlived its usefulness. His plan will increase the proportion of students admitted purely on the basis of academic merit to 50 to 75 percent, up from 40 to 60 percent.
Studies estimate this could sharply decrease the numbers of black and Latino admissions at some campuses, since many of these students have grade point averages at the lower end of the range considered by the university. The most prestigious campuses, Berkeley and UCLA, are likely to become notably more Asian and white.
The changed policy should not, however, mean that higher education in California is closing its doors to the disadvantaged. Under the new criteria, admissions officers at UC are instructed to weigh economic and community background rather than ethnicity when they consider that other 25 to 50 percent. This could still provide access for promising minority youth from less than stellar high schools. Programs to help these students compete academically can be strengthened. And the nine UC campuses are only part of California's vast system of public higher education; opportunities to transfer to more prestigious campuses exist.
The growing diversity of American society and the economic progress of minorities will continue to reshape American campuses. The regents' decision can't hold back that tide. And if the new plan is applied thoughtfully, as an adjustment of current policy, it could even help mend, not end, the system, as President Clinton urged.