How UCLA has responded to Proposition 209

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling, a look back at how the campus has fostered diversity

Sean Brenner | 

Key takeaways

  • Ensuring that UCLA’s student population reflects the diverse population of California is a goal inextricably tied to the campus’s role as a public university.
  • With the passage of Proposition 209 in late 1996, the University of California was prohibited from using race, ethnicity, national origin, or sex as criteria in admissions decisions.
  • In the decades since, UCLA has implemented a range of programs and practices that adhere to the law while ensuring a campus community that is inclusive of, and welcoming to, a population as diverse as the state of California’s.

A central element of the UCLA story is its role as an engine for opportunity for students from diverse backgrounds. Prior to the passage of California Proposition 209 in late 1996, there were many ways to measure UCLA’s impact in that regard.

UCLA was, for example, the alma mater of generations of trailblazing Black Americans such as Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche, world-changing athletes Jackie Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. In 1969, it became one of the first universities to establish ethnic studies programs, with the Asian American Studies Center, American Indian Studies Center, Bunche Center for African American Studies and Chicano Studies Research Center — all intended to advance scholarship and raise awareness of issues facing ethnic minorities.

And, prior to Proposition 209, UCLA — along with UC Berkeley — was among the nation’s top three institutions in sending students from underrepresented groups to medical school, according to UC Berkeley sociologist Troy Duster. Speaking in 1997, Duster noted that by abolishing affirmative action, California was cutting these crucial pipelines for minority students.

More broadly, ensuring that UCLA’s student population reflects the diverse population of California is a goal inextricably tied to the campus’s role as a public university. It is a foundational principle of the institution that UCLA serve the public and enhance the greater good, which means that the campus community should be inclusive of, and welcoming to, a population as diverse as the state’s.

But with the passage of Proposition 209, the University of California and other state entities were prohibited from using race, ethnicity, national origin, or sex as criteria in public employment, contracting and education.

Immediately, UCLA took action to preserve the rich diversity of the campus environment. In 1998, the year the new law went into effect, Albert Carnesale, who served as UCLA’s chancellor from 1997 to 2006, described increased outreach to underrepresented groups. “Students, faculty, alumni and administrators made phone calls and visits to students,” he said. “We had receptions on campus for admitted students and their families, and made it as clear as we could that we were determined to maintain and enhance diversity at UCLA within the constraints of the law.”

Still, the numbers of both Black and Latino students at UCLA dropped.

Despite UCLA’s efforts, by the end of the first decade of Proposition 209’s restrictions, the campus had reached a crisis. Just 2% of incoming freshmen for the fall 2006 class were Black — 101 students out of a class of more than 4,800. (By comparison, 7% of UCLA’s first-year students were Black in 1994 and 1995, the two years prior to Proposition 209.)

Then-Acting Chancellor Norman Abrams, in concert with community leaders, faculty, administrators, students and alumni redoubled UCLA’s efforts.

In 2006, the UCLA Academic Senate approved a holistic model for freshman admissions in which each application would be read and considered in its entirety rather than having sections reviewed by different people. Proponents of the new approach, which does not consider race and other factors that are prohibited by Proposition 209, believed the more individualized and qualitative assessment of each applicant’s entire application would be the fairest and most effective method of providing access to all underrepresented applicants. The strategy was already being employed by UC Berkeley.

Abrams also assembled a task force made up of campus representatives, alumni and community leaders to advise UCLA leadership on the issues and to promote discussion with the Black community. He wrote to counselors at predominantly Black high schools, and visited schools in person, sharing the message that UCLA was distressed by reports that some were telling students that the campus wasn’t interested in them. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said at the time.

The approach produced measurable, if modest, progress right away: By the following year, 4% of those who intended to enroll as freshmen were Black.

Under Chancellor Gene Block, who became UCLA’s chief executive in 2007, progress continued, but — as even Block observed in 2014 — additional measures were needed to ensure that UCLA truly reflected the diversity of California.

“Higher education is one of the greatest engines of social transformation in existence,” Block wrote in a message to the campus following the Supreme Court’s June 2023 decisions. “Since Proposition 209 was implemented, we have sought to maintain our commitment to diversity and inclusive excellence through innovative outreach programs for low-income and first-generation students, initiatives to increase UCLA’s geographic reach, and holistic admissions policies that consider students’ achievements in the context of the opportunities available to them.”

As of 2022, the percentage of Black students remained around 5% for undergraduate students and 6% for graduate students — which is roughly in line with the 6.5% of the state’s population that identifies as Black or African American.

Some measures were structured to strengthen equity and diversity on the campus itself, among them, the creation of a vice chancellor position to oversee equity, diversity and inclusion efforts, and new diversity officer positions. UCLA also established a Black Bruin Resource Center in the center of campus to offer programing and services to anyone interested in Black life; embarked upon a five-year plan to hire faculty whose work relates to Black experience; and created a new position for a staff member to maximize philanthropic support for Black life, teaching and research.

“The overarching purpose of universities is to offer a vibrant intellectual space to seek truth by engaging with and building upon the existing knowledge base, and then sharing that knowledge,” said Mitchell Chang, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and a professor of education and organizational change.

“Universities do this best when we bring together people who hold different viewpoints and perspectives shaped by different experiences and backgrounds. This kind of exposure not only expands and sharpens our own thinking but also helps us better recognize shared interests, which leads us to forge deeper bonds across difference to offer new discoveries and innovative solutions.”

And, while Proposition 209 remained a major hurdle, administrators realized that UCLA could address the admissions issue in part on a systemic level — by actively helping K–12 schools build the pipeline of students who are qualified for admission to UCLA and other highly competitive universities.

UCLA’s admission office and enrollment management division stepped up outreach to students through their schools, community-based organizations and faith-based communities and with “yield” efforts — programs designed to convince admitted students to choose UCLA from among the other top institutions they are considering.

Importantly, UCLA’s diversity efforts are not intended only to increase the representation of Black students; nor are they aimed only at students. In April 2023, Block and Darnell Hunt, UCLA’s executive vice chancellor and provost, introduced the Faculty Forward Initiative, a campus-wide effort focusing on the recruitment and retention of faculty committed to scholarship, research, mentorship and education related to those who have traditionally been underrepresented in academia.

In 2020, Block announced UCLA’s intention to pursue federal designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by 2025. Among the requirements to achieve that recognition is having a student body in which at least 25% of students identify as Latino. (As of 2022, about 21% of undergraduates and 12% of graduate students identified as Latino.)

Noting that Latinos make up a larger percentage of California’s population than any other ethnic group, Block wrote in a message to the campus community that pursuing the HSI designation, “is tied to our public responsibility in light of changing demographics in California and throughout the country. One million Latinx young people will turn 18 this year and every year for the next two decades in the United States; these students are important to our nation’s future, and we must ensure they are positioned to succeed and to lead.”

And in 2022, the campus unveiled the Native American and Pacific Islander Bruins Rising Initiative — a comprehensive approach to furthering equity and inclusivity through efforts to diversify and support student, faculty and staff populations. Among other measures, the plan provides for increasing the number of faculty whose work focuses on Native American and/or Pacific Islander experiences, supporting inclusive and successful academic experiences for students from these groups, and engaging with campus HR professionals to support salary equity and professional advancement for employees.

The UCLA initiative dovetailed with a UC-wide program, announced months earlier, the UC Native American Opportunity Plan, which was designed to make college more affordable and accessible for the state’s Native American students.

Gary Orfield, a UCLA distinguished research professor of education, law, political science and urban planning, has examined the need for ongoing efforts to ensure equity in colleges and universities, including in his 2022 book, “The Walls Around Opportunity.”

“Racial inequality still affects every stage of life and that segregation by race and poverty is still pervasive in California and nationally,” Orfield said. “Without continuing efforts to foster access our colleges for students with unequal preparation and family resources, colleges would perpetuate inequality. The UC system has been struggling to offset the impact of the state’s affirmative action ban for a quarter century given the enormous competition for access to our campuses. That work must continue and the most recent statistics from UCLA and UC Berkeley show the impact of positive leadership.”

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