California voted to keep affirmative action ban in place

It’s a setback, but students have been fighting to diversify their college campuses for years.


This story was originally published by CalMatters and is republished here by permission.

When Ayo Banjo arrived at the University of California, Santa Cruz for his freshman year, he was surprised to find that only a small fraction, about 4%, of the campus population was Black. It was “stressful,” he recalls, to not see other people who looked like him on campus. “Where’s the outreach?” Banjo, now a senior, remembers asking himself. “We’re supposed to be this diverse campus…but as a Black student, I didn’t feel that representation.”

So Banjo got to work creating the community he was searching for. He started an NAACP chapter on campus and ran for student body president, becoming the first Black man to be elected to the position. He partnered with the Black Student Union on a mentoring program for Black students considering UC Santa Cruz to help encourage them to come to the university.  And last year, he and other student leaders from across the UC founded the Pan African Student Association, a coalition of Black and African student unions that advocates for the welfare of Black students. 

Nona Claypool, a third year student at UC Berkeley and transfer student coordinator, at Mosswood Park in Oakland on Oct. 28, 2020. Claypool, who focuses her work on recruiting Native American transfer students from community colleges, says it is often the students who would benefit most from higher education who are unable to access it.

Californians voted this week by a 56.1% to 43.9% margin to continue the state’s ban on considering race, ethnicity and gender in public college admissions, hiring and contracting. But universities are pushing forward with other efforts to recruit and retain a diverse student body. Often, they’re led by students from underrepresented backgrounds like Banjo, who take time out from their studies to make their campuses more welcoming for other students like them.  They say that even though Proposition 16 — the affirmative action ballot measure —  did not pass, their work will continue. 

Black and Latino students are underrepresented at the University of California compared to those groups’ share of the state’s population. Statewide, many students of color enter college but don’t graduate. Among Californians who identify as Black, Latino, Native American and Pacific Islander, about half of those who attended college left without a degree, according to a 2019 report by the Campaign for College Opportunity. That’s compared with only 20% of Asian students and 32% of white students.

Since 2000, the annual budget for those programs has fallen   from about $85 million in 2000 to just over $24 million.

The University of California runs outreach programs that provide academic advising and college application assistance to high school students who are low-income, from an underrepresented group, or the first in their families to attend college. High schoolers who participate in the programs are more likely than their peers to be admitted to and enroll at UC, according to the university. But since 2000, the annual budget for those programs has fallen from about $85 million in 2000 to just over $24 million.

And after California banned affirmative action at public universities with Proposition 209 in 1996, enrollment of Black and Native American students in UC’s outreach programs fell, too. Afraid of running afoul of the law, campuses pulled back on targeted outreach to students of color, said Fabrizio Mejia, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Equity and Success at UC Berkeley. Back when Prop. 209 happened, I think everybody swung to the conservative. ‘We don’t want to get sued, let’s stay away from all of that,’ ” said Mejia. 

But in recent years, Mejia said, campus leaders have begun to look for creative ways to support recruitment and retention through fundraising from foundations and individual donors, and working with students on fee referenda. 

The number of staff at Berkeley’s on-campus retention and support centers has grown from about nine to more than 25 over the last eight years, Mejia said. While the centers target specific populations like transfer and formerly incarcerated students as well as those from underrepresented ethnic groups, their services are open to any interested students, Mejia said — a key element in complying with Prop. 209.

But not every campus has the resources of a Berkeley or UCLA, he said.It’s a lot easier (at Berkeley) because we have a bigger donor base and a bigger fundraising infrastructure,” said Mejia. Once the fundraising infrastructure understands the opportunity to raise money for equity purposes, it’s on. It’s a go.

Berkeley junior Nona Claypool works at the Indigenous Native Coalition at UC Berkeley, one of seven on-campus recruitment and retention centers for underrepresented groups, doing outreach to Native American community college students.  A member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Claypool grew up in Wyoming near the Wind River Reservation. “When I was nine years old, I knew that I had to get out of Wyoming,” she said. “I knew that I lacked opportunity there to grow. So I knew I had to be, like, in the city. I knew I had to get a university education.”

Claypool moved to California and enrolled at Laney Community College in Oakland, when she first encountered the Indigenous Native Coalition. Students from the program helped her apply to Berkeley and introduced her to the Native community there.

“We need more tribal leaders who can speak up for tribes and assert, you know, on policy and legislation and things that affect our communities directly.”

Inspired by her experience, Claypool is currently surveying Native American students about the challenges they face in getting to college — asking them about things like housing and financial aid. Communicating directly with students, she believes, is the best way to identify and address those hurdles. “Native Americans represent about the smallest population in higher education,” Claypool said. “But we would benefit greatly from education. We need more tribal leaders who can speak up for tribes and assert, you know, on policy and legislation and things that affect our communities directly.”

Over the summer, the Pan-African Student Association sat down with representatives of the University of California’s Office of the President to discuss ways the UC could support its Black students. They proposed a Black research grant that would fund Black student leaders to study how the university could improve recruitment and retention in their community. 

Among the topics Banjo said students hope to tackle: how to improve Black graduation rates, and why Black alumni from some campuses earn significantly less than white alumni after graduation. “We’re trying to help shape the UC as a model for successful Black students in higher education,” he said, “while Black students are compensated for that labor as organizers and scholars.” 

UC spokesperson Claire Doan said that the university was “interested in the idea of a Black research grant program systemwide” and had asked students for a detailed, written proposal. But, she added, “We cannot take any action until we have a clearer idea of our budget and whether we have the funding necessary.”

Prop. 16 would have given the UC more legal flexibility to support projects like Claypoole’s and Banjo’s. But perhaps a bigger challenge is finding the money to boost recruitment and retention of underrepresented students systemwide. The university lost $300 million in funding this year after the coronavirus pandemic put the squeeze on state budgets. 

“Our capacity does not in any way meet the demand, and as California’s population has continued to grow and diversify and as students (from underrepresented backgrounds) have moved out of urban centers into more suburban areas, our ability to reach those students has been impacted,” Yvette Gullatt, UC’s chief diversity officer, told the university’s regents at a recent meeting.

On Wednesday, as the vote totals for Prop. 16 rolled in, the No on 16 campaign jubilantly declared victory over a measure that California’s Democratic-dominated legislature had placed on the ballot. “We have successfully defeated a far-left measure in America’s bluest state!” Wenyuan Yu, the executive director of Californians for Equal Rights wrote in a statement.

UC President Michael Drake called the measure’s defeat a “setback” for the university, but added, “We will continue our unwavering efforts to expand underrepresented groups’ access to a UC education.”

Banjo said that for students working on recruitment and retention, Prop. 16’s defeat is “disheartening” but also creates an opportunity.

“Hopefully, It’s also empowering for our student organizers and communities,” he said. “Because it gives them a reason to continue to translate what could have been the benefits of Prop. 16 into an intentional plan that’s created by their campus.”

Kayleen Carter is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. 

High Country News Classifieds
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now-
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.