California's Affirmative Action Fight: Power Politics and the University of California by John Aubrey Douglass


This essay discusses the contentious events leading to the decision by the University of California’s Board of Regents to end affirmative action in admissions, hiring and contracting at the university in July 1995. This controversial decision provided momentum for California’s passage of Proposition 209 the following year ending “racial preferences” for all of the state’s public agencies. In virtually any other state, the debate over university admissions would have bled beyond the confines of a university’s governing board. The board would have deferred to lawmakers and an even more complicated public discourse. The University of California’s unusual status as a “public trust” under the state constitution, however, meant that authority over admissions was the sole responsibility of the board. This provided a unique forum to debate affirmative action for key actors, including Regent Ward Connerly and Governor Pete Wilson, to persuade fellow regents to focus and decide on a hotly debated social issue related to the dispersal of a highly sought public good – access to a selective public university. Two themes are explored. The first focuses on the debate within the university community and the vulnerability of existing affirmative action programs and policies - including a lack of unanimity among the faculty regarding the use of racial preferences. The second relates to the political tactics employed by Connerly and the saliency of his arguments, which were addressed to a larger public, and not to the academic community. Connerly attacked not only the idea of affirmative action but also the coherency of the university’s existing admissions programs, the effectiveness of using race in admissions decisions, and the credibility of the university’s administrative leaders who defended affirmative action.

Publication date: 
March 20, 2018
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)