California universities fear their affirmative action programs will be targeted

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Recent reports that the United States Department of Justice is considering scrutiny of affirmative action programs at universities has California university administrators concerned that federal officials will target some of their programs.

California law has prevented public universities from using race as a factor in admissions since voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996. But many schools do consider race in their efforts to recruit and retain students.

This week, university officials proactively warned the federal government against challenging those outreach programs. 

“[The University of California has been increasing its outreach efforts to historically underrepresented groups like Latinos and African Americans, while still bound to the strictures of Proposition 209,” said UC President Janet Napolitano in a written statement on Wednesday. “It would be tragic, to say the least, if these efforts somehow ran afoul of this reported misguided Justice Department initiative.”

The U.S. Department of Justice hasn’t revealed details about the effort and on Wednesday said it is not moving forward on university admissions in general. The New York Times first reported that the department was considering examining affirmative action programs on Tuesday.

But some conservatives welcomed scrutiny of university race based outreach and support programs.

“I think anything that is race or ethnicity based is a bad idea,” said Linda Chavez, a civil rights commissioner in the Reagan administration and chair of the right-leaning Center for Equal Opportunity.

Such programs, she says, should focus on helping economically disadvantaged people, regardless of race.

Most public university funding comes from state funds but most campuses receive federal funding, which has increased some university officials' concerns.

The most recent source of federal funding has been the federal program for Hispanic Serving Institutions, which gives grants to campuses that serve a large proportion of students with Latin American backgrounds.

The University of California - Riverside is one of the campuses that has race-based admission outreach and academic support programs.

“It is a concern of mine in that is going to create a diversion of energy as we find staff members having to respond to those types of inquiries,” said UC Riverside Dean of Students Joe Vitara.

His campus has a batch of academic support programs that target students for outreach and help based on race, ethnicity, and other classifications. More than 300 students, he said, receive peer mentor academic support through these programs which leads to higher grades and improved graduation rates.

Observers said there has historically never been a federal challenge to these race-based outreach and support programs.

“No one here in California has ever challenged these programs as a violation of Prop. 209, either,” said Nicole Ochi, a lawyer with the legal group Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Both Ochi and Chavez say it’s been hard to predict the direction of the Trump Administration on higher education, and that means they’ll keep watching.