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How California public colleges boosted diversity without affirmative action

Public universities in California may soon be required to provide medication abortions on campus to students who seek them. Pictured: University of California at Berkeley. (Ben Margot/AP)
Public universities in California may soon be required to provide medication abortions on campus to students who seek them. Pictured: University of California at Berkeley. (Ben Margot/AP)

Last week, the Supreme Court banned affirmative action in college admissions.

Almost 30 years ago, California voters directed their public universities to do the same.

“This has just been a long, tortured journey,” Teresa Watanabe, staff writer covering higher education for the LA Times, says.

“After the Black and Latino populations plunged so heavily, the UC system started doing all kinds of things to try to rebuild the enrollment of Black and brown students without using race.”

Today, On Point: Schools around the country must now rethink admissions after the end of affirmative action. What can they learn from California’s experience?


Youlanda Copeland-Morgan, former vice provost for enrollment management at UCLA. She retired last month. Reshaped UCLA’s outreach, recruitment and enrollment strategies in the post-Proposition 209 era. National leader in advancing equity in higher education.

John McWhorter, associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Author of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

Also Featured

Teresa Watanabe, staff writer covering higher education for the LA Times.

Ajay Mani, manager of culture, curriculum and instruction here at the Sola Tech Center.

Michelle Gutierrez, rising sophomore studying music at UC Berkeley.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: When the United States Supreme Court decided by a 6-3 majority to abolish affirmative action last week, responses ran the political spectrum. But they all had something in common. They were powerful, and utterly predictable.

EDWARD BLUM: The opinion issued today marks the beginning of the restoration of the color-blind legal covenant that binds together our multi-racial, multiethnic nation.

PRES. JOE BIDEN: We cannot let this decision be the last word. While the Court can render a decision, it cannot change what America stands for.

PROTESTORS: What do we do? Stand up fight back! Diversity is under attack. What do we do? 

STUDENT: I genuinely don’t understand why a student’s race should be a factor in the admissions process, because there are so many better characteristics that we can use to judge students. 

STUDENT: It’s funny, we have a supreme court justice who’s benefited from this. And it’s kind of like he wants to burn the bridge that he used. 

PROTESTORS: Show me what diversity looks like! This is what diversity looks like.

CHAKRABARTI: I said “predictable” because what we heard across America last week, sounded identical to what we heard a quarter century ago, when voters in California abolished affirmative action in the nation’s largest state system of higher education.

1996 UCLA PROTEST: Integration, it’s a must! We won’t take the back of the bus!

They can’t just use UCLA as their home base for their attacks on affirmative action. In that they want to maintain white privilege at the expense of taking opportunities from Black, Latino, Native American and other minority students.

1996 UC BERKELEY STUDENT: I don’t think they should necessarily advocate for affirmative action, because first of all, there’s absolutely no evidence that it even works. 

1996 ANTI-PROP 209 ORGANIZER: This will just devastate and gut all the laws necessary to have equal opportunity in the state of California. 

WARD CONNERLY, UCE BOARD OF REGENTS: When you give a preference to one American because of the color of his or her skin, or because of their national ancestry, that is discrimination.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. On Nov. 5, 1996, Californians voted on Proposition 209, also known as the California Civil Rights Initiative. It passed with 55% of the vote, ending affirmative action in California’s state and public entities.

And now, more than 25 years later, California provides perhaps the strongest example of how a massive higher ed system can adjust in a world without affirmative action.

Prop 209 was endorsed by the state’s then-Governor, Republican Pete Wilson. The effort was led by Ward Connerly, then a member of the University of California Board of Regents.

WARD CONNERLY: If you read the language of Proposition 209, it’s very clear. “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment, to any individual group, on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin, in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” It’s clear. Now if you were listening to that you’d have thought, “Gee, that sounds similar to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it’s almost identical.” And you would not have heard the words Affirmative Action in there any place.

CHAKRABARTI: Connerly was born in Leesville, Louisiana in 1939. He’s said he’s multi-racial, with Black, Choctaw, and European ancestry. The state of Louisiana classified him as “colored” in the state census.

During the Great Migration, his aunt and uncle moved Connerly from their segregated Black Louisiana community to California, seeking better opportunities. Connerly went to Sacramento State College, was active in the Young Democrats, and campaigned against housing discrimination.

He later started a highly successful consulting and land-use planning business and moved toward a Republican and sometimes libertarian worldview. In 1993, he was appointed to the UC Board of Regents where he soon became immersed in California’s affirmative action program.

TERESA WATANABE: This all started in 1994 when an applicant to UC San Diego medical school was rejected.

CHAKRABARTI: Teresa Watanabe is an education reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

WATANABE: And the parents of the student claimed that their son, who was white, had higher grades and test scores than those who were accepted into the medical school than those who were Black and Latino.

CHAKRABARTI: Almost 20 years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled in a case called Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The 1978 decision found that racial quotas were unconstitutional, but that affirmative action could be used so long as race was just one of several factors considered in admissions.

By 1994, Ward Connerly had examined admissions numbers in the UC system and believed that affirmative action had simply extended the kind of discrimination that the Bakke case had meant to end.

Teresa Watanabe says that’s when Connerly pressed for change across the entire University of California system.

WATANABE: And in 1995, he had the UC Board of Regents vote on the issue.

ABC NIGHTLY NEWS REPORT, PETER JENNINGS: From California tonight, a picture of how the nation’s university system may be transformed now that its affirmative action is going to be ended. Late last night, the University of California Regents voted that two years from now an individual’s race and gender will no longer be considered when you apply to work or study at the university.

WATANABE: And it was a really political thing. Because Ward Connerly was a political appointee of Pete Wilson, a conservative California governor who was running for president, who was looking for an issue that would distinguish him in the Presidential race.

PETE WILSON: Today, Affirmative Action preferences are quotas based on race and gender. They are inescapably unfair.

CHAKRABARTI: Governor Pete Wilson, formally announcing his run for President, late August 1995.

WILSON: That’s why I’ve acted to end them in California, and a Wilson presidency will end them in America.

CHAKRABARTI: Wilson did not end Affirmative Action in America. Instead, he was forced to end his presidential run barely one month after it began. As the Washington Post put it on September 30, 1995, “Wilson became the first casualty of the race for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, closing his short-lived, debt-ridden, mixed-message candidacy before it ever found a voice.”

CHAKRABARTI: However, when it came to ending Affirmative Action, it was Ward Connerly who had found his voice. Polling at the time showed that about 60% of Americans believed that Affirmative Action was unfair. Connerly sought to capitalize on that. Proposition 209 was written to expand the ban on affirmative action almost every place California tax dollars were spent, in hiring for state jobs, in state contracting, and of course in college admissions in every state school.

CONNERLY: The sad fact is that in the era of race preferences UC was admitting middle- and upper-income Black kids giving them extra points, a new meaning to the term brownie points, okay, giving them extra points. Discriminating against Asian kids and white kids in order to admit lesser achieving Black and Latino kids.

Advocates, and many students, thunderously rejected Connerly’s claim. Here’s a UCLA law student who spoke to a local LA television station.

STUDENT: And he’s saying that we would be better suited at lower tier, lower ranked law schools. That is completely false and is just buying into the kind of racist pseudoscience that isn’t any better than the racist pseudoscience that was happening during the Booker T. Washington era.

CHAKRABARTI: Those arguments fell short with voters. Californians passed Prop 209 in November 1996. LA Times reporter Teresa Watanabe says the impact was immediate.

WATANABE: After Proposition 209 passed, the percentage of Black and Latino students at the UC system flagship campuses, UCLA and UC Berkeley, plunged by half. White and Asians stayed about the same, but it was a huge impact on Black and Latino students at UC.

CHAKRABARTI: Progressives have wanted to overturn Prop 209 ever since. They’ve never succeeded. California is more Democratic and diverse now than it was in 1996. In fact, only 35% of Californians identify as white alone now. Nevertheless, voters rebuffed efforts to revive affirmative action in 2020. 56% of voters rejected that proposal.

Ward Connerly may have seen this coming. Interestingly, the same libertarian leanings that made him an enemy of racial preferences, made him a stalwart supporter of domestic partnerships and same-sex marriage, saying that anyone who truly believed in limited government must also believe in the civil right to marry whomever you love.

As for California’s end to affirmative action, in 1997 Connerly said that he hoped one day it would become the law of the land.

CONNERLY: That old saying about it not being over ’til the lady sings. I think she’ll be humming in her chamber, and the music sounds so good.

CHAKRABARTI: Except … that is not the end of the story. In fact, it’s only the beginning. Because, while the percentage of Black and Latino students on California campuses fell off a cliff in those first years, enrollment has since rebounded.

The state has two higher ed systems. The UC Schools, and California State University, which has 23 campuses.

At the UC schools, Black and Latino students were about 43% of Californians admitted in the fall of 2022. That’s higher than the 20% they represented before Prop 209 passed in 1996.

California State University has fared even better. Enrollment today almost perfectly matches the state’s diversity. In 2021, 47% of Cal State undergrads were Latino, 21% white, 16% Asian and 4% Black.

Meaning … it’s taken 25 years, but California’s system of higher education has made meaningful strides forward in building diverse campuses without affirmative action.

So, for the rest of the show today, we’re going to look at how they did it. One example comes from the medical school at the University of California, Davis. Dr. Mark Henderson has been head of admissions since 2007.

HENDERSON: When I started, our medical school was not very representative or reflective of California. So basically, colleagues took variables that were present in every medical school application and developed a scale from 0 to 99 that essentially measures the degree of socio-economic disadvantage that a candidate has. With a number of interventions that we’ve made, today between 40% to 50% of our entering students come from underrepresented groups.

CHAKRABARTI: An end run around affirmative action? Or a fairer way to achieve a more meaningful kind of diversity in higher ed? Those are the urgent questions now being asked by the rest of the country. We’ll seek some answers when we come back. This is On Point.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re talking about what the nation can learn from California’s experience. Almost 30 years after voters there ended affirmative action in that state. In 2012, Youlanda Copeland-Morgan became Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at UCLA.

She served in that position until just last month when she retired, and she joins us today from Claremont, California, Youlanda Copeland-Morgan, welcome to On Point.

YOULANDA COPELAND-MORGAN: Hello, Meghna. It’s good to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: So we talked in the previous segment about how in the late ’90s, after the passage of Prop 209, Black and Latino enrollment in places like UCLA was cut in half.

By the time you joined in 2012, what was the diversity situation like at UCLA?

COPELAND-MORGAN: It certainly was still below, despite all the efforts that the university had made. It was below where we were prior to the implementation of Proposition 209. And I would say that when I came aboard, there had been a lot of efforts, a lot of time, a lot of money put into strategies that the university had hoped would restore the diversity that we were looking for as a public institution. But in fact I think you can characterize the university’s journey as one of some progress, but a lot of challenges. It was not an easy.


COPELAND-MORGAN: Journey for us. Yes.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you just briefly describe what one of those less than successful efforts were so that we get an understanding of what UCLA had tried?

COPELAND-MORGAN: So, first of all, let me say that I am not speaking on behalf of the university because I’m in retirement. And former vice provost for enrollment management, nor was I at the university at the time.

CHAKRABARTI: Correct. Yes.

COPELAND-MORGAN: Generally, what I can say is that the university re-doubled down, if you will, on its outreach programs, on working with community leaders, working with school districts across the state to be real partners in the K-12 efforts of preparing students for success in all of our universities.

And for many reasons, those efforts were challenging. Because race and income plays a huge role in the type of educational opportunities that students will get or that they have, to prepare them for colleges. And so the work went beyond just looking at the admissions process, but rather the state had to focus, the university system had to focus on the inequities that students were experiencing in their own neighborhoods and their own schools.

CHAKRABARTI: Right? So the upstream K-12 inequities. But as you said, those are very complex. Deep rooted and difficult to solve.

It’s a problem of multiple generations in this country. So then where did you look specifically, again, upstream of an undergraduate’s experience to try and find those qualified young people who were not coming into the UCLA application pipeline? Because somehow you did turn those numbers around.

COPELAND-MORGAN: Yeah, so I came to the university of California system after spending more than three decades in highly selective private institutions. And where many of those institutions, too, were trying to diversify their student populations. And so I brought with me a lot of trials and errors and successes.

And my passion and dedication to diversity has long driven my work. In higher education and the opportunity to give back to a city that raised me and educated me. The city of Los Angeles was a real honor. And because of my ex my three decades of experience before coming to UCLA, there were data and experiences that I had at other institutions that allowed me to approach my work at UCLA, perhaps in a different way than others. And let me say that UCLA is an institution that is driven by its public mission, and it had, and still has an unusual commitment from the staff, the faculty and leadership to diversity. And I was willing to fail in experimenting and trying new strategies.


COPELAND-MORGAN: For achieving diversity.

CHAKRABARTI: So let’s talk about specifically what those strategies are, because as far as I can read from some of the reporting about the changes that you brought to the enrollment management team at UCLA, it was that you weren’t just looking at schools at K-12 or high schools anymore.

You reached out to African American churches, also went to like interesting places like community events, the Taste of Soul Street Festival in the Crenshaw neighborhood in LA. Even meeting families at coffee shops in order to talk to them about college recruitment. So tell me a little bit more about what makes those efforts different from what had come before.

COPELAND-MORGAN: There are a couple of things that I would mention. First of all, in any work that we do, we must acknowledge the unfortunate history of minorities in this country. We must acknowledge that our lived experiences are shaped by the neighborhoods that we live in. The educational, the limited educational opportunities and unequal educational opportunities that are in rural communities, underrepresented communities, inner city communities, on reservations and lands and communities near reservations.

We have to acknowledge that first before developing strategies. Secondly, we must recognize that our lived experiences, the lived experiences of students, impact their ability to prepare for college. And lastly, I would say my belief is that we all have a responsibility to help prepare students from any background, but particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to prepare them for college.

And so that we have to work in partnership with our K-12 educational partners. And to acknowledge what the data shows. Let me just say this, for example. Research shows that students who go to preschool before going to kindergarten, start kindergarten with a vocabulary of about 5,000 words vs. those who do not go to preschool and do not have access to preschool.

Where they typically have a 2,000-word vocabulary. We have to recognize in our most inner-city schools that our educational facilities are inferior to those educational facilities and schools that more privileged students from upper-income backgrounds attend. So the educational access is unequal.

So my work began acknowledging those realities and that I needed our local officials, our leaders in K-12 education, our faculty at UCLA who had already been involved, and I doubled down on that, and said, “I need you to not only support me in the work of recruiting students and helping students to prepare for college, but also to help our K-12 colleagues.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Youlanda, if I could just step in here and forgive me. I hear everything that you’re saying because these are truths about America and its various education systems. But today I really want to understand like concretely specifically what you did as vice provost at UCLA.

That actually turned around the enrollment numbers for Black and Latino students there. Again, like I was just mentioning some of the outreach efforts that you had launched. Why do you think those other programs, worked? I’m just looking for like your set of data that that led to the increase enrollment in Black and Latino students at UCLA.

COPELAND-MORGAN: Sure. So one of the things I said, acknowledging the truths that I just mentioned. And then secondly, as a result of that, we went in and acknowledged that we needed to build relationships of trust with our communities.

In the neighborhoods, in the schools where we were trying to recruit students from underrepresented background. And to recognize that teachers and school leaders were doing the best that they could with the resources to prepare our students, but that they could do a better job if we partnered with them and helped them to understand exactly what we were looking for in our future Bruins.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s what I was hoping to hear. What was the nature of the partnership? We’ve got about another minute before, I’ve got to take a quick turn here, but go ahead.

COPELAND-MORGAN: So let me say that first we started with saying that we’re not simply looking for A students, we’re looking for students who have taken rigorous courses in high school. That demonstrate that they can do college level work. So then we have to work with the school counselors to say, “What does that look like in a math sequence?

What does that look like in his history and other courses that the students are taking?” And that, because there were many students who were getting straight A’s in these high schools, but they weren’t taking, getting straight A’s in rigorous courses. Because they didn’t have access to the AP courses, to the IB courses and other college level courses that would help prepare them.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. Youlanda Copeland-Morgan, stand by for just a second. We’re going to return to UCLA’s specific experience in trying to build diverse campuses, in a world after affirmative action in California. But you’re really touching on something that seems to be a constant theme here about, let’s call them upstream efforts to develop diverse young people as great candidates for college and university.

So I think that’s one of the lessons to draw from the 30-year effort following California’s ban on affirmative action back in 1996.

AJAY MANI: One of my favorite students, he first joined the tech center, he was a junior. And so we’re talking to this kid, we’re talking about college for the first time. At this moment this is the child with a 4.4 GPA, and right now in the spring semester of his junior year is the first time he’s talking about college, right?

That is too late. That is a travesty.

CHAKRABARTI: This is Ajay Mani, he’s manager of culture, curriculum and instruction at the Tech Center, a nonprofit education center in South Los Angeles, run by the for-profit real estate company, Sola Impact. Now, Ajay says, for many students who may not have access to a lot of the high-tech equipment at home, walking into Sola Impacts’ 13,000 square foot facility packed to the rafters with technology is like an otherworldly experience.

MANI: To them, to their eyes, for the first time, it’s something out of Marvel. It’s something out of a movie, Mission: Impossible. Something that’s oh, this is a lot of screens.

A Best Buy to them, is like what we get compared to a lot.

CHAKRABARTI: The tech center also offers services on college readiness, applying for financial aid and career development, everything wealthy families might take for granted as a regular part of a student’s high school experience. The tech center also commits to supporting students even after they graduate high school and head off to college, students like Michelle Gutierrez, who grew up in East LA.

Michelle got into UC Berkeley and just finished her freshman year.

MICHELLE GUTIERREZ: My thoughts on college when I was way younger was, “Oh, I don’t think I can do it. It seems like too much.” But thankfully with my high school and Sola, of course, they really helped with my perception of college and saying, “You know what? I can do this.”

MANI: And really giving them that lay of the land, so they have a better understanding, but also giving them those skills and those soft skills to present themselves and feel confident when they’re on these campuses, when they’re not going to be the majority.

And so where their lived experiences become these sorts of shields of strength in their adversity, empowers them. It drives them forward.

GUTIERREZ: I think what I really learned, especially in my last year of high school and my first year in college, was that I needed to be more social. I can’t be scared to go up to people or look for the stuff that I need to look for. Because if not, I’m honestly holding myself back.

MANI: I think the importance of upstream efforts when it comes to college access is allowing the students to seek out college as an option organically themselves through just exposing them to what college can unlock. The idea of a student being a doctor because they fall in love with what the career could be, makes them want to go,

“What does it take to be a doctor? I want to work at SpaceX.” Well, “Who is SpaceX hiring?” The access to information’s never been greater. It’s just about providing a spark to get something ignited.

GUTIERREZ: My first day at Berkeley was so tense and scary because I did not know where any of my classes were. It is such a big campus. I was wondering, “Should I go to class 30 minutes early, 10 minutes early?” But I think after the first day, when I was running around trying to find my classes and getting to know all the people, just knowing that someone is always going to be there to say, “Michelle, you know what? It’s going to be okay. You’ve got this.”

Because if I did not have Sola, like, behind my back, I would probably be struggling in my first year.

MANI: It’s amazing to watch kids who are genuinely afraid to be the nerds that they are, find real value and merit in their interests.

Kids who want to be interested in things that other people aren’t, or who want to just do something irrelevant to what other people are having them want to do. And having to exist as their own individual.

GUTIERREZ: I was so close to being like, “You know what? I don’t think college is right for me.” But in the end, I pushed through, and I didn’t underestimate myself anymore, and I just felt so glad to be coming back home, but also coming back home with all these new experiences and people that I’ve met. It was just really great to reflect on the year that I had, and just feel so much I can do what I want to do like in my future.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Michelle Gutierrez, now a rising sophomore at UC Berkeley. You also heard Ajay Mani, director of culture, curriculum and instruction at the Sola Tech Center in South Los Angeles. Today, we’re talking about what the rest of the nation can learn from California’s almost 30-year experience now after voters there chose to ban affirmative action back in 1996. We’ve also got Youlanda Copeland-Morgan with us who just retired as Vice Provost for Enrollment management at UCLA, and we’ll have more from her and others when we come back. This is On Point.

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