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May 8, 2006

Affirmative action debate draws large student crowd

By Louise Donahue

There were tense moments, but also some areas of agreement, as both sides debated the hot-button issue of affirmative action Wednesday night.

Debate participants are, clockwise from left, Ward Connerly, Cruz Reynoso, Richard Sander, and Faye Crosby.
Photo courtesy of College Nine/College Ten Cocurricular Programs

An ethnically diverse, mostly student crowd filled the College Nine/College Ten Multipurpose Room to hear affirmative action opponents Ward Connerly and Richard Sander and proponents Cruz Reynoso and Faye Crosby. Former UC Regent Connerly has campaigned nationally against affirmative action; Reynoso is a former California Supreme Court Justice and now a law professor at UC Davis; UCSC psychology professor Crosby has written widely about affirmative action and diversity; and UCLA law professor Sander successfully argued for the adoption of class-based preferences in the law school’s admissions.

Noting that “there are few subjects that inspire more passion than race,” former UC Regent Connerly urged civility as the debate began by reminding the gathering of something his grandmother used to say: “The smallest pancake has two sides.”

Those sides were especially at odds over Proposition 209, the measure passed by California voters in 1996 to bar use of race or gender preferences in hiring and admissions.

“Proposition 209 has been an absolute disaster,” said Reynoso, citing the dramatic drop in minority enrollment that followed. “We needed affirmative action then, we need it now.”

Connerly couldn’t have disagreed more. Proposition 209 didn’t take away the ability to use the right kind of affirmative action, he said. “It has sharpened our focus on doing more at the K-12 level to get our kids prepared. Proposition 209 has forced UC to reexamine its admissions policies and redefine merit.”

Sander said that following Proposition 209, UCLA’s law school devised a system that accepted fewer high-income applicants. “We were able to have a truly diverse class,” with dramatically better bar-passage rates, he said. Sander said the new system avoids the “mismatch effect”--in which African American law students are in the lower ranks of their classes. “You have to attack the real sources of disparity,” said Sander, calling affirmative action the “easy way out.”

The role of standardized tests in admissions came up at several points in the debate, with Crosby noting that studies indicate a 200-point difference in SAT scores predicts only a third of a grade—the difference between a “B” and a “B-.” “Do we think that difference is so large that we would exclude a whole segment of society?” she asked.

Both Crosby and Reynoso also pointed out that seemingly neutral standards can have a discriminatory impact.

Reynoso recalled that for many years, police departments required that officers be at least 5’10” tall. While women were not specifically excluded, the height requirements had that effect.  Today, with less-restrictive height requirements, police chiefs find women officers invaluable, he said. “Affirmative action has been wonderful for this country and for every profession,” he said.

In addition to disagreement on policy, there was disagreement on terminology, especially over whether affirmative action amounts to reverse discrimination.

“The reality is that there are forms of affirmative action that do discriminate, there have been forms of affirmative action that did admit people that were unqualified,” said Connerly.

Crosby disagreed.Affirmative action is not reverse discrimination, because it’s not discrimination,” she said.

To Sander, the key question was whether affirmative action achieves its goals. “I think in education there is evidence that large racial preferences are counterproductive.” In his view, the nation switched, in a relatively short time, from discrimination against minorities to discrimination for minorities. “We’ve gone from one regime to another.”

Recalling the years before affirmative action, when Latino and African American law school graduates were few and far between, Reynoso framed the issue in terms of society as a whole. “To me, it’s not a matter of preferences, it’s a social policy that’s good for our country.”

Asked how we will know when affirmative action is no longer needed, Reynoso said that will happen for different groups when there is a good representation of that group. “I don’t see affirmative action as something that’s limited. I think we will always need it because there will be people who aren’t represented.”

Connerly called the notion of ethnic representation “anathema to the American way of life. Every person has the opportunity to get a fair shake,” he said, but “let’s not get into the trap of thinking we need proportional representation in every walk of life.”

Crosby agreed—to a point. While Connerly had emphasized repeatedly that he was opposed to the government compiling racial data on its citizens, Crosby said such records are needed to determine whether discrimination exists. “Affirmative action is first of all a monitoring system.”

While feelings ran high, audience members generally complied with the rules outlined by debate monitor Michael Hutchison, interim Social Sciences dean: no signs, cheering, clapping, or vocal disapproval. 

Despite their differences, areas of agreement were also emphasized. “We seek different paths, but we’re all going to the same end,” Crosby said.

The event was part of the College Nine and College Ten Cocurricular Programs debate series.

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