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The battle to equalize education in America first erupted in the chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court on May 17, 1954. Ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, the court unanimously decided that segregated educational facilities were unequal and, thus, violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. In doing so, the court overturned its previous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which allowed for "separate but equal" public facilities. The court's ruling in Brown mandated desegregation of all public schools in the country and began the process of school integration.

By the early 1970s, many college admissions policies included some form of affirmative action. In 1974, the California State Legislature passed several resolutions aimed at speeding up the integration process. One of the resolutions essentially called for racial quotas, ordering the University of California to match the racial composition of its student body to that of each year's graduating high school class by 1980. But the UC schools never reached that goal, in part because of several successful legal challenges that classified affirmative action as reverse discrimination.

One of the first lawsuits charging reverse discrimination failed that same year on April 23, 1974. In DeFunsis v. Odegaard, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to decide whether the constitution allowed professional schools to give preference to minority applicants. In a 5-4 ruling, the court decided that the case of Marco DeFunsis - who alleged the University of Washington Law School had denied him admission because he was white - was no longer valid because he had since been accepted to another law school and would soon graduate. But a similar case four years later would strike the first blow to racial preferences.

Allan Bakke was an engineer working for NASA who wanted to become a doctor. In 1973 and 1974, he had applied to the University of California at Davis Medical School, which twice denied his admission, even though his test scores were higher than many of the minority applicants the school admitted. Under the school's admissions program, 16 of the 100 places in each entering class were reserved for "disadvantaged" applicants, which the school defined as blacks, Latinos, American Indians and Asian-Americans. Bakke sued, and the California Supreme Court sided with him.

The school appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but on June 28, 1978, the justices ruled 5 to 4 that the school should admit Bakke. The "Powell Decision" also stated that schools could no longer use racial quotas, though it left open the practice of considering race in admissions to promote diversity. The ruling put the University of California in a strange position because it was already under orders from the state legislature to meet enrollment quotas by 1980.

After Bakke, racial preferences in college admissions left the headlines for a few years. But by the late 1980s, admissions policies at the University of California again came under fire, this time for allegedly discriminating against Asians. In November of 1988, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights announced it was investigating admissions procedures at UC Berkeley and UCLA after receiving complaints that the schools were capping admissions of Asian students.

The complaints centered on statistics that showed a sharp drop in the percentage of Asian applicants throughout the decade, even though a higher percentage of these applicants met UC's admissions standards than those from other racial groups. Critics blamed the drop on the school's subjective admissions policies, which they said placed too much weight on extracurricular activities. The government also announced plans to investigate similar claims at Harvard.

In April of 1989, UC Berkeley Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman publicly apologized for the drop in Asian admissions at the school. Though he denied that policies had been put in place to deliberately restrict Asians, he vowed to make changes to correct the error. In May, the University announced changes to admissions standards that placed more emphasis on academic achievement, and agreed to make its admissions process public for the first time.

In October of 1990, the U.S. Department of Education announced the first findings of its investigation. The report cleared 75 graduate departments at UCLA of wrongdoing, but said that the graduate mathematics department discriminated against Asian students in 1987 and 1988. The findings were based largely on statistical evidence, and UCLA criticized the investigation for failing to take into account the weight it placed on personal recommendations and the prestige of an applicant's undergraduate school.

At the same time the government announced these findings, alleged discrimination against Asians looked to be a thing of the past, at least in the Berkeley undergraduate program. In the fall of 1990, Asian students outnumbered whites in the incoming freshman class for the first time in the school's history. But federal investigators looking into the Asian admissions charges began to turn up evidence of other infractions.

In September of 1992, the Department of Education announced that, from 1988 to 1990, Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law shielded minority applicants from competition with white students in an effort to meet affirmative action quotas. Investigators detailed a system in which the school divided applicants by race and ethnicity and compared each applicant only to others within the same group. The school denied any wrongdoing, but agreed not to separate applicants based on race or ethnicity in the future. The department also announced that it found no wrongdoing in its investigation of Harvard.

Three years later, affirmative action programs at all University of California campuses came under fire. At the end of 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson told reporters he favored ending race- and gender-based preferences in government employment and college admissions. Weeks later, on January 19, 1995, University of California Board of Regents member Ward Connerly announced he would work to replace the university's affirmative action programs with "something... that is fair." Eventually Connerly and Wilson worked together to bring the issue before the entire board.

On July 20, 1995, after 12 hours of heated debate, the board of regents voted 15-10 to end race based preferences in admissions, hiring and contracting. Wilson - who was board president but hadn't attended a meeting since 1992 - showed up to cast an affirmative vote. At the time, Wilson was making a bid for the U.S. presidency. The ban went into effect in 1996 at graduate and professional schools, and in 1998 in the undergraduate division.

In 1996, affirmative action continued to lose favor both in and out of California. On March 19, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals nullified a University of Texas Law School admissions policy that sought certain percentages of black and Latino students. In their opinion in Hopwood v. Texas, two of the three appellate judges denounced the practice of using racial classifications and scoffed at the importance of creating a diverse student body. Unlike the decision in Bakke, which supported some affirmative action measures, the Hopwood case nullified any motivations for racial preferences. The Supreme Court later refused to hear the case in 1997.

The day after the Fifth Circuit decision, the U.S. Department of Education released findings from its seven-year investigation into alleged discrimination at UC Berkeley. The report stated that investigators found no evidence of discrimination against white students at the school, and no evidence of a drop in academic standards due to affirmative action policies. It also said that in 1993 - the year studied in the probe - only 3 percent of the freshman class were admitted without meeting the school's admissions standards. Governor Wilson and other critics of racial preferences questioned the timing of the release, suggesting it was designed to deflect attention from the Hopwood decision.

Later that year, California voters gave Wilson a nod of support. On November 5, 54 percent of the electorate voted yes on Proposition 209 - a ballot initiative banning all affirmative action in government employment and public education - affirming the governor's earlier efforts to end racial preferences in the UC system. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged 209, but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in April, 1997. The U.S. Supreme Court later declined to hear the ACLU's appeal.

By 1997, both the regents' decision and 209 had gone into effect at UC's graduate and professional schools, and allegations of discrimination started to fly again, this time from minorities denied admission to the university's three law schools. Several civil rights groups complained of extremely low minority admissions at the schools, such as Berkeley's Boalt Hall, which admitted one in four white students in 1996, but only one in 10 Latinos and one in 20 blacks. On July 14, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed it was investigating the law schools, based mainly on claims they gave extra weight to students who attended elite Eastern colleges but ignored the prominence of schools like Howard University, which is predominantly black.

Outside of California, the battle against affirmative action was just beginning. In October of 1997, the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington, DC based civil rights organization, filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan on behalf of two white students denied admission to the school's undergraduate program. In December, CIR filed another, class-action lawsuit against the school on behalf of white students denied admission to the law school. Both suits charged that the university had a dual admissions system, using higher standards to judge white applicants than it did for minorities. Later, in August of 1999, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a group of minority students at the university could join the lawsuit as co-defendants. The students felt that the school would not adequately defend their interests, namely the preservation of affirmative action admissions policies. The case has not yet gone to trial.

In 1998, California's ban on affirmative action went into effect in undergraduate admissions, and the effect at Berkeley was considerable. In its first year without race-based preferences, the school accepted its least diverse freshman class in 17 years, admitting 56 percent fewer blacks and 49 percent fewer Latinos than in 1997. Six months later, in February, 1999, several civil rights groups filed a class-action suit against the university on behalf of 750 minority students denied admission in the fall. The suit focused on the school's policy of weighting grade point averages with credit for Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and pointed to the fact that many minority students attend high schools without AP classes. The school countered that it had no other way to differentiate between all of its applicants with 4.0 averages. In 1998, more than 14,000 students with 4.0 averages applied for just 8,400 spots in the freshman class.

In July, the ACLU filed a related lawsuit against the State of California alleging discrimination against high school students in low-income and minority neighborhoods. The ACLU charged that schools in affluent areas offered far more AP classes than those in low-income areas, disadvantaging many poor and minority students in college admissions. Both lawsuits are still pending.

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