Asian-Americans Dominant Group at Berkeley
(Source: UC-Berkeley)

To what extent should a public university campus reflect the ethnic diversity of its residents? Should it represent a microcosm of society?

If you answer yes, then you won't like what's going on at Cal-Berkeley. According to an article in the New York Times, California is 12 percent Asian, but that group constitutes 41 percent of the undergraduate student body. Across the UC system, that figure is 37 percent. Asians have become a–if not the–dominant group on many campuses, most visibly at Berkeley.

Should we care?

Read this from the Times article:

Spend a few days at Berkeley, on the classically manicured slope overlooking San Francisco Bay and the distant Pacific, and soon enough the sound of foreign languages becomes less distinct. This is a global campus in a global age. And more than any time in its history, it looks toward the setting sun for its identity.

The revolution at Berkeley is a quiet one, a slow turning of the forces of immigration and demographics. What is troubling to some is that the big public school on the hill certainly does not look like the ethnic face of California, which is 12 percent Asian, more than twice the national average. But it is the new face of the state's vaunted public university system. Asians make up the largest single ethnic group, 37 percent, at its nine undergraduate campuses.

The oft-cited goal of a public university is to be a microcosm – in this case, of the nation's most populous, most demographically dynamic state – and to enrich the educational experience with a variety of cultures, economic backgrounds and viewpoints.

But 10 years after California passed Proposition 209, voting to eliminate racial preferences in the public sector, university administrators find such balance harder to attain. At the same time, affirmative action is being challenged on a number of new fronts, in court and at state ballot boxes. And elite colleges have recently come under attack for practicing it – specifically, for bypassing highly credentialed Asian applicants in favor of students of color with less stellar test scores and grades.

In California, the rise of the Asian campus, of the strict meritocracy, has come at the expense of historically underrepresented blacks and Hispanics. This year, in a class of 4809, there are only 100 black freshmen at the University of California at Los Angeles – the lowest number in 33 years. At Berkeley, 3.6 percent of freshmen are black, barely half the statewide proportion. (In 1997, just before the full force of Proposition 209 went into effect, the proportion of black freshmen matched the state population, 7 percent.) The percentage of Hispanic freshmen at Berkeley (11 percent) is not even a third of the state proportion (35 percent). White freshmen (29 percent) are also below the state average (44 percent).

This is in part because getting into Berkeley – U.S. News & World Report's top-ranked public university – has never been more daunting. There were 41,750 applicants for this year's freshman class of 4,157. Nearly half had a weighted grade point average of 4.0 or better (weighted for advanced courses). There is even grumbling from "the old Blues" – older alumni named for the school color – "who complain because their kids can't get in," says Gregg Thomson, director of the Office of Student Research.

So should Berkeley and other campuses maintain a meritocratic approach, or should they strive for proportional representation? What do you think?

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