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Enrollment of blacks at Berkeley dropping

Critics say rhetoric not leading to results

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Sometimes, Adia Harrison looks around her classes at the University of California at Berkeley and is slightly surprised at the reminder: Just about no one else looks like her.

This fall, being black at Berkeley is likely to become even more of an anomaly than it already is. As of late spring, 98 black students had registered for fall enrollment out of an expected freshman class of 3,821.

"This is supposed to be a public university, and it's not really representing the public," Harrison said.

Campus officials are not sure what lies behind a nearly 30 percent decrease in black freshman admissions this year.

Part of the explanation may go beyond the famously liberal school itself. Applications from black students were down about 10 percent here, and decreases in minority applications also were reported at the University of Michigan and Ohio State University.

Gary Orfield, co-director of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, said possible explanations include higher tuitions across the nation as well as publicity over a US Supreme Court ruling that struck down Michigan's system for giving admission preference based on race.

Berkeley recruiting efforts were further hurt, campus officials say, by new restrictions on their practice of flying students from predominantly minority high schools to campus for pre-application visits.

University lawyers advised that targeting minority schools could violate Proposition 209, the 1996 voter-approved law banning the use of race in California college admissions, Berkeley spokesman George Strait said.

Berkeley officials say they do not agree with that interpretation and they are looking at ways to revive the visits.

"Virtually every part of the campus is extremely concerned about the low numbers of underrepresented minorities and, in particular, the appallingly low numbers of African-Americans," Strait said.

The fall enrollment figures followed by about six months a report by John Moores, chairman of the university's governing Board of Regents, saying Berkeley turned away thousands of students who posted high scores on the SAT but accepted hundreds -- many of whom were black or Hispanic -- with low scores.

After Moores wrote an opinion column in April saying that university policies victimized students, his fellow regents slapped him with a rare public censure.

Regents also reaffirmed their commitment to UC's "comprehensive review" admissions, which do not consider race but do look at social factors, such as overcoming poverty, as well as grades and scores.

Still, the affair left some Berkeley students feeling undermined.

"The way a lot of the students feel is that the UC system and the administration has this rhetoric of celebrating diversity, but they're not really following through with it," said Peter Tadeo Gee, a Berkeley student who works with a multicultural resources center on campus.

Black student admissions have been low for some years.

In 1997, the last year affirmative action was allowed at the university system's nine campuses, Berkeley admitted 562 black students.

That number fell to 191 as the new race-blind policies took effect, but had risen to 338 by 2000. But for this fall, 211 black students were admitted.

Toff Peabody, a molecular biology major at Berkeley, was so struck by the new Berkeley numbers that he joined a loosely organized group this spring that has been campaigning for a more diverse campus under the banner "White Males for Diversity."

"If the purpose of school was to just go to lectures, we could all stay home and watch them on the Internet," Peabody said. "It's the actual interaction you have with other students that makes my education better at Berkeley than somewhere else."

As of fall 2003, whites accounted for about 30 percent of undergraduates, with Asian Americans, who also did not benefit under the previous affirmative action programs, comprising about 40 percent. (Berkeley's definition of Asian American is broad, including people with ties to the Pacific Islands and countries such as India.)

Proposition 209 supporters say it is a mistake to focus on race or ethnicity -- that keeping a close tally of demographics only serves to create barriers.

"Don't go there thinking, 'I'm going to be looking around for other black kids,' " said Ward Connerly, a UC regent who led the fight to drop race-based admissions. "Go there and recognize that it's going to be one of the greatest experiences of your life. You're there to meet new people. You're there to learn. You're not there to engage in this racial, 'Mirror, mirror on the wall' kind of thing."

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