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At UC-Berkeley, a Plan to Welcome Underserved Students Provokes the Ire of One Asian-American Group

Other Asian-American advocacy organizations applaud attempts to secure access to education for communities of color.
University of California–Berkeley students walk campus on April 17th, 2007, in Berkeley, California.

University of California–Berkeley students walk campus on April 17th, 2007, in Berkeley, California.

An Asian-American student advocacy group has accused the University of California–Berkeley of enacting racially conscious admissions policies that the group says would disadvantage Asian-American applicants, a charge the university has rejected as baseless. The standoff comes amid a lawsuit involving similar allegations against Harvard University, which many decry as a bid by conservatives to undercut access to education for underserved communities of color.

Earlier this month, the Asian American Coalition for Education advocacy group announced it had sent a letter to UC–Berkeley officials lambasting a recent speech by university chancellor Carol Christ about plans to increase the school's Hispanic population to 25 percent of the undergraduate student body over the next decade. The letter argues that plans to boost the Hispanic student community would ultimately disadvantage Asian-American university applicants.

"Albeit politically correct, assigning racial quotas as a fashionable way to proclaim equity and representation does nothing to address the real root cause behind the lack of racial diversity in college campuses, namely K-12 education failures in too many minority communities," the AACE letter states. "Instead, this will only create undue burdens among Asian American children, for whose equal rights we fight."

The letter, reported this week in UC–Berkeley's student newspaper, the Daily Californian, has prompted an unequivocal rejection from university officials.

"The initial reaction of some to the Chancellor's plans were unfortunately based on the unsubstantiated and completely erroneous assumption that this University is planning to use racial quotas as part of its admission process," Dan Mogulof, UC–Berkeley's assistant vice chancellor, writes in an emailed statement to Pacific Standard. "Nothing could be further than the truth as that would violate standing California law that strictly prohibits the consideration of race and ethnicity when it comes to the admission of applicants. We have no quotas of any sort at present, and nor will we have quotas in the future."

AACE was not available by phone and did not respond to Pacific Standard's multiple emailed requests for comment.

Mogulof adds that the university plans to encourage already-admitted students from underserved groups to enroll.

"In that context it should be clear this is not a zero sum game: All admitted students are eligible to enroll," he says. "So, if we succeed in encouraging more admitted students from Group X to enroll that has no impact on the ability of admitted students from Group Y to enroll."

In the fall of 2017, nearly 40 percent of UC–Berkeley new freshman enrollees were of Asian and Pacific Islander American origin (a figure that excludes international students and students who declined to note their ethnic background on their paperwork). Only about 13.5 percent of newly enrolled freshmen identified with origins in Latin America. Black-identifying students comprised just 2.9 percent of enrollments and white-identifying students tallied in at 24.5 percent.

Among the rights groups to voice support for UC–Berkeley is Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles. "Programs such as UC–Berkeley's uplift and support underrepresented students who may not have the same opportunity to succeed as white students due to systemic racism," says Nicole Ochi, the group's supervising attorney. "In essence, these programs see students as who they are as a whole person. Any demand to remove race as part of the admissions process only perpetuates white admissions advantage."

While the standoff between AACE and UC–Berkeley grows more contentious, a lawsuit against Harvard for its race-conscious admissions policies remains ongoing. In that case, the litigants say the school's admissions policies disadvantage Asian-American students. The plaintiff, the Students for Fair Admission advocacy group, is headed by conservative activist Edward Blum, who was part of the legal bid to overturn parts of the Voter Rights Act in 2013. Mother Jones reported in 2016 that Blum had been involved in "a string of big cases targeting voting rights and affirmative action," including Fisher v. University of Texas, in which he helped to mount a legal bid against the University of Texas' race-conscious admission program.

Blum says he is unable to comment on UC–Berkeley's standoff with AACE. "We are not involved with this issue. Unable to comment," he writes in an email. He did not respond to questions on his group's Harvard litigation.

In August, the Department of Justice expressed support for the SFFA's lawsuit in what many call the administration's attempt to hinder communities of color from accessing college educations—under the guise of support for Asian-American students.

"It is unsurprising that the [Department of Justice] supports SFFA's side of the lawsuit; the administration has made clear that they are not interested in helping communities of color. This case is no different," adds Ochi, the Advancing Justice–LA attorney.

The Department of Justice did not respond to Pacific Standard's request for comment.

Harvard has continued to support its race-conscious admissions policy. The most recent statement on its website notes that Blum has asked the court for permission to excuse him from testifying as a witness in the trial for the lawsuit his organization brought.

"While SFFA and Mr. Blum continue to hide behind their secretive organization, Harvard will continue to vigorously defend the legal right of every college and university to achieve a diverse student body through an admissions process where the consideration of race is one factor among many," Harvard said in the release Monday.