Burning Down the House: Politics, Governance, and Affirmative Action at the University of California
reviewed by Douglas E. Mitchell - 2004
Title: Burning Down the House: Politics, Governance, and Affirmative Action at the University of California
Author(s): Brian Pusser
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791460576, Pages: 320, Year: 2004
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During the summer of 1995, affirmative action in matters of student admissions, faculty and staff hiring, and contracting for services became the most controversial issue in University of California policymaking since a notorious flare-up over faculty loyalty oaths in the 1950s. Brian Pusser’s book documents in fascinating detail the emergence of this issue in July 1994, its rise to national prominence in 1995, its temporary resolution in the passage of UC Regents’ policies SP-1 and SP-2 in June of 1995, and its aftermath and reversal on May 16, 2001. He provides a step-by-step account of the process by which Regent Ward Connerly and then California governor Pete Wilson secured a solid majority vote to reject all considerations of race and ethnicity in University hiring, contracting, and admissions decisions. The richly documented account is accompanied by a broad examination of the meaning of these decisions from the perspectives of University history, theories of higher educational governance, and the changing landscape of national judicial and political orientations toward race and ethnicity.
Pusser recognizes that the rebellion against affirmative action policies in the University of California was energized largely by the angry reaction of middle class white families confronting increasingly stiff competition for access to the prestige and educational quality of the UC system. University admissions were not expanding at the same rate as population growth, and affirmative action admissions policies were biasing admission decisions toward underrepresented minorities (African Americans and Latino/Hispanics). Pusser’s analysis focuses attention, however, on the ways in which this issue cut across the traditions of faculty and administrative governance over University policies and practices and provided an opportunity for political interest groups to use the University as a testing ground for their changing social and political policy agendas. The ending of the UC affirmative action policies was played out in the context of Governor Pete Wilson’s effort to secure the 1996 Republican Party presidential nomination and efforts by the Rev. Jesse Jackson to pursue national political ambitions and garner support for a coalition of interests he represents. While Jackson was invited into the process by UC student leaders, frustrated by their lack of ability to influence the policy making process, Wilson and his close political supporter Regent Ward Connerly were already in a position to use UC policy deliberations as a vehicle to express their anti-affirmative action political goals.
Within this political context, Pusser gives substantial attention to the ways in which this hot-button political decision was not easily or effectively addressed by the UC faculty and administration. He says,
At a moment when the University of California was called upon to rethink its mission, the nature of its constituency, and the efficacy of its organization in a time of crisis, it turned for the most part to a time-tested strategy of relying on appeals to shared governance, faculty expertise, and a history of success. It was a strong hand, but the game was changing rapidly. (p. 83).
UC President Jack Peltason and the primary faculty representative to the Board of Regents, Daniel Simmons, maintained a relatively low-key rational tone throughout the controversy, consistently stressing the importance of the faculty and administrative roles in the University’s tradition of shared governance over admissions and hiring policies. They offered extensive information about the history and consequences of University affirmative action policies and practices, and projected the consequences of the proposed abandonment of these policies. On the other hand, they never publicly acknowledged that the issue of affirmative action within the University should be seen as a matter of overall state or national policy regarding race and ethnicity, and apparently they did not try to mobilize overt political pressure supporting their views from constituencies outside the University. Student groups did mobilize protests, but their influence was not nearly sufficient to sway the Governor and the Board of Regents.
The tone of reporting on the conduct of the University administration and faculty is somewhat critical, implying that these groups did not fully understand what they were dealing with and suggesting that they did not act with the level of overt and aggressive political action needed to cope with the political pressures being thrust upon the Regents from other sources. Moreover, they did not seem to grasp the extent to which the Regents would continue to honor the conservative position of the governor and the Republican party with whom they were closely aligned at the time of their appointments to the Board.
This critique of the UC administration and faculty is perhaps the only important weakness in this book. While highlighting a variety of organizational and political theories that might account for the policy changes that were adopted over the objection of University leaders, Pusser leaves unexamined the extent to which the traditional strength of the University administration and faculty in sensitive policy matters rests on the foundation of rational, deliberative discourse. While refusing to break with this tradition may have contributed to losing this Board majority needed to defeat SP-1 and SP-2, it may well have been a matter of “losing the battle in order to win the war.” In maintaining their cool and rationalistic approach to deliberation, the UC officials appear to have laid the groundwork needed to successfully challenge and secure a repeal of the anti-affirmative action initiatives in May of 2001. Their reports accurately predicted a precipitous decline in the enrollment of minority students if affirmative action policies were abolished and provided the basis for a reconstituted Board of Regents to retrace its steps and restore confidence in the University’s shared governance traditions.
In sum, this book is a sweeping and illuminating look at the issue of affirmative action in higher education. Unfortunately, the text was closed before the recent Michigan cases were decided by the U. S. Supreme Court. Except for a proper consideration of these complex and important cases, however, this book provides excellent analysis, and above all, extensive quotations from primary sources that give the reader access to the political strategies and nuanced meanings that were brought to bear on this historic conflict.