How UCLA has responded to Proposition 209AcademicGlobal Outreach
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.”