Decrease in black students alarms UCLA


LOS ANGELES -- This fall 4,852 freshmen are expected to enroll at the University of California, Los Angeles, but only 96, or 2 percent, are black - the lowest figure in decades and a growing concern on the campus.

For several years, students, professors and administrators at UCLA have watched with discouragement as the numbers of black students declined. But the new figures, released last week, have shocked many on campus and prompted school leaders to declare the situation a crisis.

UCLA - which has such storied black alumni as baseball legend Jackie Robinson, Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche and former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and is in a county that is 9.8 percent black - now has a lower percentage of black freshmen than either its cross-town rival, the University of Southern California, or UC-Berkeley, the school often considered its top competitor within the UC system.

The 96 figure - down by 20 students from last year - is the lowest for incoming black freshmen since at least 1973. And of the black freshmen who have indicated they will enroll in the fall, 20 are recruited athletes, admissions officials said.

"Clearly, we're going to have to meet this crisis by redoubling our efforts, which have not yielded the results we'd like to see," said Chancellor Albert Carnesale, who met Friday with a delegation of undergraduates upset about the situation.

Complex causes

In a telephone interview before the meeting, Carnesale described the preliminary numbers for black freshmen as "a great disappointment" and said that UCLA has been trying for years to boost those levels, within the limits allowed by law.

He and other officials at UCLA and elsewhere said that the problem of attracting, admitting and enrolling qualified black students is found at competitive universities across the country and that its causes are complex. In California, the problem is rooted partly in the restrictions placed on the state's public colleges and institutions by Proposition 209, the 1996 voter initiative that banned consideration of race and gender in admissions and hiring.

Other factors include the socioeconomic inequities that undermine elementary and high school education, with minority students disproportionately affected because they often attend schools with fewer resources, including less-qualified teachers and fewer counselors.

Many students and professors also say the declining presence of blacks on campus discourages prospective students from attending, thus exacerbating the problem. Some of those interviewed, including UCLA sociologist Darnell Hunt, said the campus could be doing more than it is.

Hunt, who is head of UCLA's Bunche Center for African American Studies, and several colleagues have been studying the issue as part of a multiyear research project on the challenges facing black students in California universities.

In a draft of a report to be released this month, the researchers compared the admissions criteria and processes at UC's three most competitive campuses: UCLA, UC-Berkeley and UC-San Diego. (At the last, the incoming black freshman class stands at 52 students, or 1.1 percent, even lower than at the others.)

Rejections criticized

In an interview, Hunt acknowledged the difficulty for a campus such as UCLA, which received 47,000 applications this year. Yet he criticized the school for rejecting many black students based on what he described as factors of questionable validity, and that he said might be linked more to socioeconomic privilege than academic merit.

"There's a common misperception that this is a horrible problem but that black students just need to do better," he said. "But most of the black students who don't get in go to other top-notch schools - Harvard, Duke, Michigan. We're losing students who could be here."

Ward Connerly, the former UC regent who was an architect of Proposition 209, said the issue was not the law.

"The problem - and this is an old song, I know - starts with the small number of black students who are academically competitive," he said, pointing out that many also choose to attend historically black colleges or private schools.

Karume James, 20, a graduating senior who led a recent student protest on campus over the issue, said he remembered the excitement he felt when he arrived at UCLA for student orientation in the summer of 2003. Then 17, James was preparing to transfer to the campus from a community college in Riverside, Calif., his hometown. He recalled what he felt when he looked around.

"That was a real shock. I spent about 14 hours at the campus, and I counted only about 12 black people. I guess I'd had this feeling that UCLA was going to be this truly diverse place, and it just wasn't," said James, who is the chairman of UCLA's Afrikan Student Union.

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