THE push to remove affirmative action from the University of California came to shove last week when the university's president defied its Regents and decided to delay the policy shift.
President Richard C. Atkinson informed the chancellors of the nine UC campuses that a new system for admitting talented students handicapped by earlier educational impediments would be delayed a year, affecting entering freshmen in 1998 instead of 1997. The Regents, who followed Gov. Pete Wilson's lead and voted affirmative action out last July, were predictably upset.
University officials concluded that replacing the old considerations of race and gender with new ones related to family and economic background is easier in concept than in practice. How do you determine that someone's family experience was troubled, for instance? Or that deficient family income is a long-term, rather than a recent and temporary condition?
The shift initiated by the UC Board of Regents last summer sent tremors through higher education. Some other schools, notably the University of Colorado, now face similar mandates to revise admissions and hiring policies.
The move from race-based criteria to those based on social or economic factors may alleviate the fairness concerns that have pursued affirmative action. If carefully thought through, the new criteria could succeed in assuring that no worthy candidate is turned away just because of inferior secondary schooling or handicaps in upbringing.
It's well, meanwhile, to remember that only a relatively few students - some estimate as low as 3 percent - now are admitted to UC with affirmative action as a determining factor. The university system opens its doors to the top 12.5 percent of the state's high-school graduates, and it's anticipating a wave of 450,000 new applicants in the next 10 years. That's the central admissions challenge it faces.