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SAN FRANCISCO - Ward Connerly, who made fighting race-based admissions a constant of his career as a University of California regent, stayed with that theme to the end of his 12-year term with a lively discussion over the merits of affirmative action.
In one of his last acts as a regent, Connerly invited UCLA law professor Richard Sander to present his recent research finding that black students admitted to law school by affirmative action ended up at a disadvantage. Sander found the students couldn't keep up with the rest of the class, posting lower grades and becoming more likely to fail the bar exam.
UC has not had affirmative action admissions since Connerly persuaded fellow regents to ban campus officials from considering applicants' race or gender. He went on to chair the successful campaign for Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative banning consideration of race or gender from public hiring, contracting or education.
But Connerly said that doesn't make talking about affirmative action irrelevant.
"We have not yet as a society embraced fully the colorblind vision. We're in a transition," he said. "I sense some discomfort among my colleagues and the audience as we talk about things in terms of black and white, but that's to be understood," Connerly said.
UC officials, who opposed Connerly's push for race-blind admissions, provided a counter expert in the form of Chris Edley, dean of UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.
Sander presented regents with a succession of graphs and charts to support his findings that blacks admitted by affirmative action struggle. He argued that if those students had gone to lower-tiered law schools without affirmative action they would have done better with the net result that more would have passed the bar.
Edley, the first black to serve as dean of a major public U.S. law school, took issue with Sander's findings. He said the elimination of affirmative action would result in far fewer blacks going to law school and questioned the assumption that blacks not admitted to the school of their choice would be willing to go elsewhere.
Lower-tier law schools tend to be in places like Montana and Wyoming, Edley said, "places that are remarkably - What's the word I'm looking for? - white."
Edley also said that judicial openings and other important jobs tend to be filled by students from top colleges. "All of that would be in jeopardy and we would face a resegregation of those institutions at a time when the door is just beginning to open," he said.
After UC went to race-blind admissions, the number of black and Hispanic students fell sharply. At Boalt, only one black student enrolled in fall 1997, the first year of the new system, and that was someone who had been accepted the year before but deferred admission.
Since then, the number of blacks and Hispanics has increased systemwide, although less so at the top campuses of UCLA and Berkeley.
At Boalt, 15 black students enrolled last fall out of a class of 270. In 1996, the last year affirmative action was allowed, 20 enrolled out of a class of 263.
Although he invited Sander to speak, Connerly said he doesn't agree with the professor's argument that affirmative action is ineffective. For Connerly, affirmative action is simply "morally wrong."
In a parting shot at UC officials, Connerly, who is scheduled to attend his last meeting as a regent Thursday, said it's important to discuss things such as Sander's research because "beneath everything that happens at the university is that pent-up desire to use race."
Still, Wednesday's collegial exchange was a far cry from some of the bitter disputes that have characterized previous board discussions on race.
The personable Edley set a warm tone at the beginning of his remarks, praising Sander for scholarship. Then, Edley announced, "and now I'll try my best to rip his heart out."