Like an unhealed wound, an unresolved political issue will fester and on occasion erupt. Such is the case with the enrollment and admissions issues related to historically underrepresented groups and other ethnic groups in California’s higher education institutions.

The source of this current eruption is State Sen. Ed Hernandez’s Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA 5). The passage of SCA 5 with a two-thirds vote would put the issue of appealing certain aspects of Proposition 209, which eliminated affirmative action in California, on the ballot for a public vote.

Because of the unique situation, earlier this year when the State Senate had a Democratic super-majority and what with affirmative action being a core issue for Democrats, SCA 5 sailed out of the Senate on a party-line vote. Next stop was the California Assembly. By this time, some who oppose affirmative action started organizing. Organizing the loyal opposition, so to speak, is a time-honored democratic tradition and unfortunately so are some of the tactics used.

Using misinformation and outright lies, the opposition appealed to people’s fears, another time-honored political tradition, by claiming that SCA 5 would re-establish quotas. With a limited number of admission slots in California’s higher education institutions, this meant there would be winners and losers.

First of all, racial quotas have been ruled unconstitutional for decades and the policy promoted by Sen. Hernandez’s bill are in alignment with the recent Supreme Court ruling related to the Texas case on the subject at hand. The ruling determined that race could be considered as one of the many aspects related to admissions.

Relative to the winners and losers scenario, the opposition’s view is that more African American and Latino students mean fewer Asian Americans. This is another misunderstanding because the issues go beyond the historically underrepresented groups and addresses admissions for other racial/ethnic and socio-economic groups, including other Asians and Pacific Islanders.

Now, some will say there are too many Asian Americans on higher education campuses and they are “overrepresented.” These students should not be penalized or singled out because of their success. No apologies will be forthcoming; in fact, we should be proud of this success. All have played by the rules and have successfully navigated the admissions process and have rightfully earned their place on campus. In fact, if asked, we should share our methods of success with those interested.

By the same token, it should not be assumed that admissions should be singularly based on the law of the jungle, where only the strong survive. Our society is not a jungle nor meritocracy, it is a democracy, and consequently, the well-being of the whole (society) is as important as the well-being of the individual.

So how do we strike this balance in relationship to this admissions issue? I contend that as long as higher education is treated as a “zero-sum game,” the issue of winners and losers will always be in play. Rather than repeatedly fighting over the re-slicing of the same size pie, we have to increase or bake a bigger pie.

It is a good thing that so many qualified students want to pursue higher education. Yes, qualified students, so that means we have to improve the K-12 system so that it produces more qualified and prepared students for the challenges of higher education. This also means qualifications are based on more than test scores and quantitative determinations. The subjective factors and other human factors are critical for an educated, enlightened and compassionate society.

The civil rights organization Asian American for Advancing Justice hopes to interject this viewpoint in the debate around SCA 5. I agree and believe the time is right for reinvesting in higher education. After years of cutting budgets and increasing fees, now is the time to redefine this debate and move forward on a new Master Plan for Higher Education as a whole. With the economy improving, this is not “pie in the sky” hyperbole.

Using Sen. Hernandez’s commission, which like a phoenix is rising from the ashes of the stalled SCA 5, let’s restart this discussion among forthright and honest players, not political opportunists and fear-mongers, so we can establish a higher education system in California that both serves the group and the individual.


Warren Furutani has served as a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education, Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees, and California State Assembly. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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