By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“They asked me if I wanted to play,” said Kelley. “I never imagined I’d do that.”
Neither did the Columbia University professor ever imagine he’d find himself considering the job he was being offered by his tour guides. Kelley was a confirmed New Yorker with Ivy League tenure. As a graduate student at UCLA, he had known the school across town merely as the University of Spoiled Children. The program for which he was now being considered, American Studies and Ethnicity, hadn’t even existed. But any fears Kelley had about becoming a token minority scholar in a token minority program were allayed that day, when he sat down for what sounds like more of an intellectual salon than a job interview.
“Only once we talked about money,” Kelley recalls. “They had read some of my stuff, and they engaged me intellectually — these are administrators! They asked what I was working on now. Everyone treated me as if I were a very significant thinker and not just another high-profile press release.”
No press release was needed. Soon after returning to New York from his interview, Kelley received a call from his old dissertation adviser at UCLA. Having heard that one of their top graduates was considering moving west, the department held an emergency meeting at what, by their own admission, was a critical time for UCLA.
For years, the university with one of the nation’s pioneering African-American studies programs — the university that produced Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche and Tom Bradley — has suffered an embarrassing decline in diversity. Its incoming class this fall included only 96 African-Americans, the fewest in more than 30 years. In response, UCLA has adopted a more holistic set of admissions standards, placing less emphasis on test scores, which the university hopes will help diversify its 2007-08 class. Other UCs have experienced similar declines in minority enrollment, though none so precipitous as the dominant public university in a county with the country’s second-largest black population.
Kelley and others blame Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action at California’s public institutions a decade ago. It was roughly around that time that USC embarked on its own transformation.
“At USC, after the riots, there was suddenly a feeling that if the surrounding communities go under, it’s hard to have first-rate students come,” says USC professor George Sanchez, a UCLA classmate of Kelley’s who persuaded him to consider USC. “Meanwhile, I would have colleagues at UCLA who had been ensconced in the Palisades so long, they would say, ‘I haven’t been downtown in 20 years.’?”
If they had, Sanchez’s former colleagues at UCLA might have been surprised. By providing a neutral ground for dialogue, USC helped ease the neighborhood’s shift from a largely African-American neighborhood to a Latino enclave. The university helped set up and fund the Kid Watch program to ensure that local children get home safely after school, and it has promised many of its academic seats to those same students. It was to honor those efforts that, in 2000, Time magazine voted USC “College of the Year.”
The effects are being felt all over Los Angeles, including the city center, according to USC history professor and State Historian Emeritus Kevin Starr. “The current revival downtown was driven by USC planners who had been talking about it for 25 years,” says Starr. Meanwhile, USC enrolled 132 African-American freshmen last fall, twice UCLA’s percentage. (This year’s figures haven’t been released yet.) Kelley says he took note while deciding which job to take.
“I used to walk around the USC campus 20 years ago, and the faces have changed,” says Kelley, who ultimately turned down his alma mater for USC. “I can see USC becoming a less hostile environment for minorities than UCLA. For me, that’s been the biggest surprise of all.”
Kelley isn’t the only one surprised by the changes at USC. UCLA professor Tim Stowell says he was shocked himself last year when he and five of his linguistics-department colleagues received calls from USC on the same day: “They wanted us to defect.”
The department chair says he had never seen such a large and well-coordinated raid in academia. If successful, UCLA would have lost a third of one of its top departments, third-ranked in the nation. Stowell knew what a blow the defection would be, but after years of unmet demands for better facilities and more graduate-student funding, he was tempted.
In the end, UCLA met the demands and retained its linguistics department, but not without raising discreet alarms, recalls Kevin Starr. “The chancellor called [USC president] Steven Sample and said, ‘Look I don’t mind you trying to poach a professor or two, but not a whole department!’?” says Starr. “The raid attempt showed a lot of chutzpah.”
If you can’t beat them, join them. Last Wednesday, UCLA flexed its own recruitment muscle and addressed its diversity concerns by announcing that it has snagged Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project, a research center focused on civil rights and racial inequality. Poaching one of Harvard’s prized projects was a coup, and possibly an expensive one. According to its own leadership, UCLA has struggled to close a widening state and federal funding gap that has handed a recruiting advantage to private institutions.