Critics blast $20M Cal-Berkeley fund for race-based scholarships, hiring

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The $20 million fund unveiled by a top California university last month to endow scholarships for African-American students and to hire diverse faculty is just the latest attempt to get around a state law barring schools from using racial preferences in admissions, according to critics, who are vowing yet another legal battle.

University of California-Berkeley's "African-American Initiative" would raise funds from private non-profits to fund “a comprehensive effort to address the underrepresentation of African-American students, faculty and staff at our university, and improve the climate for those who are here now and all who will join our community in the future.” The money would go to scholarships for black students, the hiring of race-specific clinical psychologists and fostering a more diverse faculty and senior management, according to the school.

“For too long, African-Americans on our campus have faced obstacles to feeling fully included in the life of our university,” said Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California system's flagship school, adding that the initiative is “predicated on our collective determination to engage and improve the campus climate for African-Americans across every sector of our community.”

“The reality is, if they improved on working towards the achievements of their students they wouldn’t need to go around the law.”

— Ward Connerly

But critics say the scholarship fund is an end-run around Proposition 209, the 1996 law barring state institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity for public employment, contracting and education. Ward Connerly, a conservative African-American who served on the University of California Board of Regents from 1993-2005 and is considered one of the architects of Prop 209, said the initiative appears to be illegal.

“The University of California, especially Berkeley and UCLA, have long tried to circumvent the law when it comes to this,” Connerly told “We are a nation of laws and Berkeley is not above them. The school has no right to avoid the law by developing initiatives such as this.”

Prop 209's backers claim it was modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which barred race as a factor in an effort to protect African-Americans from discrimination. By using similar language more than three decades later, the measure's proponents sought to stop racial preferences. University of California schools have seen higher graduation rates among minority students since Prop 209 took effect, with the Berkeley campus alone seeing a 6.5-percent increase in graduating students. But despite the rise in graduation rates, raw enrollment rates among African-Americans has dropped.

At the 38,000-student Cal-Berkeley, African-Americans currently make up just 3 percent of undergraduates, 4 percent of graduate students and 2 percent of the faculty at the university, according to officials.

Critics say that UC Berkeley is focusing on the wrong methods to raise the enrollment of African-American students. (

Critics say that UC Berkeley is focusing on the wrong methods to raise the enrollment of African-American students. (

School officials declined comment, instead referring to a recent “Q&A” page where Dirks laid out the reasoning for the initiative. But officials told The College Fix the purpose of the initiative is not to make it easier for black students to be admitted, but to encourage more to apply because they know they could get help with tuition once accepted. The endowment fund will consist of “privately administered scholarships for admitted African-American undergraduates, many of whom receive scholarship offers from other institutions that are beyond our current financial aid abilities."

Prop 209's effect on universities has long been viewed as impacting admissions policies. While private scholarships can legally use race as a consideration, Cal-Berkeley's involvement in creating and administering the endowment could be viewed as violating the law's intent, according to Connerly.

“I intend to ask the Pacific Legal Foundation to take a look and if there’s any wrongdoing found, we will sue,” he said. “If we allow them to disregard the law, then they will try to do more and more.”

Gail Heriot, University of San Diego law professor and expert on Prop 209, told The College Fix the scheme does appear to violate the law.

“If the initiative is as described in the university’s announcement, it is a straightforward violation of Proposition 209,” Heriot said.