In a historic decision likely to echo across the nation, the University of California regents Thursday night voted to abandon 20-year-old efforts to diversify the faculty, staff and students.
The dramatic vote - taken after protesters forced regents from their meeting room - will eliminate policies that have increased the numbers of black and Hispanic students, as well as women and minority faculty, on the nine UC campuses.
The regents voted 14-10 about an hour after protesters - including the Rev. Jesse Jackson - interrupted their 12-hour meeting with shouts and song. The regents reconvened in a second room - from which the public was barred - after about 40 minutes.
The vote was a huge victory for Gov. Pete Wilson, who has made ending race- and gender-based preferences a centerpiece of his presidential campaign.
All 13 regents who sided with Wilson - a regent by virtue of his position - were appointed to the board by Wilson or his Republican predecessor George Deukmejian.
Wilson is sure to win favor from Republican conservatives for facing down Jackson and President Clinton, who Wednesday delivered his own ringing defense of affirmative action programs.
The regents meeting had drawn extraordinary attention as the first battle in a national campaign against affirmative action.
Participants on both sides said Thursday night they expect efforts to reverse preferences for women and minority students at universities elsewhere.
But the decision seemed likely only to inflame passions around programs designed to help women and minorities overcome centuries of discrimination.
Up to 500 protesters kept an all-day vigil outside the regents’ meeting at the UC-San Francisco building in Pacific Heights.
The meeting also was interrupted for about 30 minutes in late afternoon by a bomb threat. After last night’s vote, demonstrators took to the streets around the UC campus.
“He ramrodded the academic community,” Jackson said after the vote. “It will have a big impact across the country. July 20 will live a long time in California history.”
Wilson, however, portrayed the vote as a triumph for the ideal of a color-blind society, where race is not a factor for or against individuals. “It means the beginning of the end of racial preferences,” the governor said at an evening news conference.
“This is a historic moment,’ added Ward Connerly, the black Sacramento housing consultant who, as a regent appointed by Wilson, spearheaded the move to repeal affirmative-action programs. “The country is saying we want to try to ride this bike without the training wheels on.”
According to the resolutions approved by the regents, preferences for women and minorities in hiring and contracts at UC will be ended Dec. 31. The changes in student admissions will take effect a year later.
The daylong meeting featured impassioned and deeply personal testimony on all sides of the affirmative action debate: Blacks recalling segregated toilets; Japanese-Americans detailing their time in internment camps; Hispanics testifying to their current struggles to escape the barrios.
“Don’t think you have a monopoly on discrimination and the problems of being a minority,” San Jose lawyer and regent Stephen Nakashima told students, recalling his time in an World War II internment camp.
“The country cannot be secure, it cannot be prosperous, it cannot be stable, it cannot have a promising future, (as well as) discrimination against minorities and women,” said Arthur Fletcher, who, as an aide to President Nixon, wrote the nation’s first affirmative-action plan in 1971.
Wilson’s critics accused him of playing politics with the nation’s premier public university - from which Wilson earned a law degree in 1962 - by trying to boost his presidential ambitions.
“You’re not just being asked to participate in a political campaign,” Lt. Gov. Gray Davis told his fellow regents. “You’re being asked to fire the first shot.”
But Wilson, Connerly and a majority of the board insisted that the vote had nothing to do with Wilson’s political agenda. Connerly said he had been trying to overturn affirmative-action programs since last year, before Wilson even considered running for president.
To win, Wilson and Connerly had to overcome the near-unanimous opposition of top university administrators, including the chancellors of the nine campuses and all faculty senates. At one point, Wilson and Berkeley Chancellor Chan-Lin Tien clashed over admissions standards at Berkeley, which Wilson claims unfairly favor blacks and Hispanics at the expense of whites and Asians.
Indeed, several defenders of affirmative action said that abolishing the preference programs would severely damage the university’s search for a successor to retiring President Jack Peltason.
“Not one candidate internally or externally would remain on the list if (the regents) do not stay the course with affirmative action,” state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin said late in the afternoon.
After the vote, Wilson said he did not think abolishing affirmative action would harm the search for a new president.
In a statement after the vote, Peltason and the chancellors said the decision would “make it more difficult for our campuses to achieve the diversity that is essential for the future excellence of the university and the stability and welfare of the society.”
Others criticized Wilson for reducing state funding to higher education, which they claimed shrinks educational opportunities for all students. State Sen. Tom Hayden, D-Santa Monica, compared the process to a “Darwinian rationing of seats.”