BERKELEY, Calif. – This fall, being black at Berkeley (search) is likely to become even more of an anomaly that it already is. As of late spring, 98 black students had registered for fall enrollment out of an expected class of 3,821.
Campus officials aren't sure what lies behind a nearly 30 percent decrease in black admissions this year.
Part of the explanation may go beyond the famously liberal school itself. Applications from black students were down about 10 percent here, and decreases in minority applications also were reported at the University of Michigan (search) and Ohio State University (search).
Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, said possible explanations include higher tuitions across the nation as well as publicity over a U.S. Supreme Court (search) ruling that struck down Michigan's system for giving admission preference based on race.
Berkeley recruiting efforts were further hurt, campus officials say, by new restrictions on their practice of flying students from predominantly minority high schools to campus for pre-application visits.
UC lawyers advised that targeting minority schools could violate Proposition 209 (search), the 1996 voter-approved law banning the use of race in California college admissions, Berkeley spokesman George Strait said.
Berkeley officials don't agree with that interpretation and they are looking at ways to revive the visits.
"Virtually every part of the campus is extremely concerned about the low numbers of underrepresented minorities and, in particular, the appallingly low numbers of African-Americans," Strait said.
The fall enrollment figures came about six months after John Moores, chairman of UC's governing Board of Regents, issued a report saying Berkeley turned away thousands of students who aced the SAT but accepted hundreds — many of whom were black or Hispanic — with low scores.
After Moores wrote an opinion column in April saying UC policies victimized students, his fellow regents slapped him with a rare public censure. Regents also reaffirmed their commitment to UC's "comprehensive review" admissions, which don't consider race but do look at social factors, such as overcoming poverty, as well as grades and scores.
Still, the affair left some Berkeley students feeling undermined.
"The way a lot of the students feel is that the UC system and the administration has this rhetoric of celebrating diversity but they're not really following through with it," says Peter Tadeo Gee, a Berkeley student who works with a campus multicultural resources center.
Black student admissions have been low for some years.
In 1997, the last year affirmative action was allowed at UC's nine campuses, Berkeley admitted 562 black students. That number fell to 191 as the new race-blind policies took effect, but had risen to 338 by 2000.
But this fall, only 211 black students were admitted.
Renita Chaney, a junior and executive director of the campus Black Recruitment and Retention Center, said she would be reluctant to encourage black freshmen to attend this fall unless they want a challenge.
"If it's activism or some kind of fight they're looking for, then come here. But if education is what they're looking for, then don't come here," she said.
Toff Peabody, a Berkeley molecular biology major, was so struck by the new Berkeley numbers he joined a loosely organized group this spring that has been campaigning for a more diverse campus under the banner "White Males for Diversity."
"If the purpose of school was to just go to lectures we could all stay home and watch them on the Internet," Peabody said. "It's the actual interaction you have with other students that makes my education better at Berkeley than somewhere else."
As of fall 2003, whites accounted for about 30 percent of undergraduates, with Asian Americans, who also did not benefit under the old affirmative action programs, comprising about 40 percent. (Berkeley's definition of Asian American is broad, including people with ties to the Pacific Islands and countries such as India.)
Proposition 209 supporters say it's a mistake to focus on race or ethnicity — that keeping a close tally of demographics only serves to create barriers.
"Don't go there thinking, 'I'm going to be looking around for other black kids,'" says Ward Connerly, a part-black UC regent who led the fight to drop race-based admissions. "Go there and recognize that it's going to be one of the greatest experiences of your life. You're there to meet new people. You're there to learn. You're not there to engage in this racial, 'Mirror, mirror on the wall' kind of thing."
But for Adia Harrison, knowing there'll be fewer black students on campus next year is a little unsettling.
"People are going to notice even more that there's not very many African-American people. Not only the African-American students will notice it," she says.
Still, she doesn't regret coming to Berkeley: "It's a good school, and I know eventually, no matter how difficult it is, I'll be able to get through."