Prop. 16 Supporters Hope to Diversify STEM With End to California Affirmative Action Ban

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A student walks toward Royce Hall on the campus of University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in Los Angeles, California on March 11, 2020.  (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

As a freshman at UC Davis last year, Saishruti Adusumilli got hooked on coding after excelling in an introductory course. So she mapped out a plan to tack on a computer science major while also working toward a political science degree.

The first step: more computer courses. But as she rose into more sophisticated classes, she began to feel “an almost crippling level of self-doubt.”

Photo provided by Saishruti Adusumilli.

“I started questioning whether I was smart enough — or I was the type of smart — to succeed in a subject like computer science,” she said.

The anxiety was unusual; weird, actually. As a high school student, Adusumilli co-founded a nonprofit to spread awareness about mistreatment of girls in India, delivering a TEDx Talk on the subject. In political science courses, she felt confident and self-assured, even when discussing unfamiliar topics. So what was the difference for computer science?

Eventually she realized that unlike in her social science courses, all of the computer science professors and most of her classmates were male. The self-doubt stemmed from not seeing other women in the program.

“There's this undeniable benefit to seeing people that look like you in higher education,” she said.

Adusumilli’s experience is one reason she supports Proposition 16, a repeal of California’s nearly 25-year-old ban on affirmative action. She hopes scrapping the law would help bring more women and people of color into computer science courses like those at UC Davis.

Californians passed the 1996 ban in the form of Proposition 209, with 55% of the vote. The measure made it illegal for universities, public sector employers and governments to consider race, sex or ethnicity when selecting job and school candidates. A repeal would overturn that ban, though it would not require affirmative action programs to be reinstated.

Since its passage, the law has withstood a dizzying number of court challenges, and with Proposition 16, affirmative action supporters may have their best opportunity for repeal since it went into effect.

Racial Reckoning in STEM

This year, the scientific community joined the wider movement against racial bias, with many prominent journals and institutions acknowledging that people of color are woefully underrepresented in the field.

STEM-field bachelor’s degrees awarded to Black students, for example, are falling nationwide. Meanwhile, federal statistics show that women receive higher percentages of undergraduate degrees overall, but significantly lower percentages of those in STEM areas.

Adusumilli and other supporters of Proposition 16 say the return of affirmative action programs could help diversify UC in general and STEM classes, in particular.

The UC Board of Regents has unanimously endorsed the repeal of Proposition 209, saying the affirmative action ban “challenged the university’s ardent efforts to be equitable and inclusive as it seeks to attract the best and brightest students from all backgrounds, while ensuring equal opportunity for all.”

“The reality is UC has been unable to reflect California’s full diversity in its student body,” the board wrote in a statement.

Enrollment statistics seem to bear that out. For the past two decades, they show Latino, Black and Native American students as underrepresented across the system.

The gap has closed in recent years, especially for Latino students, but the latest diversity report shows the disparity is pronounced in STEM disciplines, and increasingly so for graduate departments and faculty positions.

Syreeta Nolan, a senior at UC San Diego, studies cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. She supports Proposition 16 and says many Black students like herself don’t feel like they have a “clear pathway in STEM.”

“It’s not like Proposition 16 will create a quota that needs to be filled,” Nolan said. “But there’s thought and proactive recruiting of Black students. That needs to be allowed to diversify the college environment."

Lilly Irani studies the impact of computer algorithms on people, and as a faculty researcher in the UC San Diego communications department, she teaches both STEM and non-STEM classes.

The lack of diversity in STEM subjects is noticeable, she says, and many of her computer science students seem to share a particular set of life experiences, so that they "are less likely to have a job outside of school and are not able to reflect on real-world issues like housing affordability.”

A supporter of Proposition 16, she believes rolling back the ban could help seed the technology industry with a wider array of perspectives than it currently includes.


Ban's Impact on STEM

Opponents of Proposition 16 meaning supporters of Proposition 209 point to the fact that the number and graduation rates of Black and Latino students who enroll in the University of California system have grown since affirmative action was banned in the state.

Ward Connerly, the president of Californians for Equal Rights, a nonprofit organization committed to "defending Proposition 209," wrote in an opinion article in the Orange County Register that  Proposition 16 "threatens California's commitment to  equity" and would "delete that commitment to equality from the California Constitution."

Connerly, a former UC Board of Regents member who along with Republican Gov. Pete Wilson led the campaign to pass Proposition 209 in 1996, argues, a quarter-century later, that affirmative action isn’t needed. In some instances, he says, it could actually hurt students from underrepresented groups, who might struggle at elite schools which admit them based on nonacademic factors, a concept that relies on the so-called “mismatch theory.”

But a recently released study from a UC Berkeley Ph.D. student, published by the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education, found that underrepresented students were no more or less successful in chemistry, biology, physics or computer science at less selective schools.

After examining decades of student transcripts preceding and following Proposition 209, the researcher, Zachary Bleemer, found that the ban widened the gap of underrepresented ethnicities in the UC system and led to lower wages among early-career minorities in STEM fields.

“If you don’t support affirmative action because you think it might not help targeted Black and Hispanic students, this study should make you rethink your beliefs,” Bleemer said in a press release. (He declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he wanted the work to speak for itself.)

David Mickey-Pabello, a sociologist who studies education at Harvard University, called Bleemer's work convincing. Other, national studies have found that affirmative action bans impacted minority students in STEM more than in other disciplines, which Mickey-Pabello calls the “STEM penalty.” His own research suggests these impacts only appear to grow stronger over time.

The binary nature of the debate — “affirmative action: yes, or affirmative action: no” — isn’t helping students, says Esteban Aucejo, an economist at Arizona State University who has studied the issue.

“At the end of the day, affirmative action policies are increasing the choice-set of minority students,” he said. “From a policy perspective, it is about implementation. How can we make this work for everyone? Can we do something to make these policies better?”

Nolan, the UC San Diego senior, agrees, and she argues that more proactive matriculation policies could even be expanded to include students who live with disabilities. "Affirmative action needs a revision itself," she said.

Lagging in Polls

The vote on what has traditionally been a polarizing issue comes at a time of racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody in May. And California is much more diverse and liberal than it was decades ago, when Proposition 209 was easily passed.

Still, a Public Policy Institute of California poll released in September found just 31% of likely voters in support of and 47% against Proposition 16, with 22% undecided. Even in the liberal Bay Area, the percentage of likely voters saying they want to overturn the ban was only 40%. Another poll released around the same time, from Berkeley IGS, found the measure losing 33% to 41%, with 26% undecided.

The Yes on 16 campaign says the wording of the 1996 affirmative action ban is confusing voters. That language stated that California “cannot discriminate against or grant preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin,” something that Proposition 16 promises to overturn.

"Watching a focus group with Black voters from Los Angeles, they all said, ‘No we will not vote for this,’ as it was read to them," Eva Paterson, a co-chair of the Yes campaign, told abc7 News in San Francisco. “Then when we explained that it was in favor of affirmative action and equal opportunity, and they all went, 'Well, of course we'll vote for this.”

The Washington Post points out that the Vote Yes and Vote No websites use nearly the same slogans: Proponents say “Fight Discrimination” and “Equal Opportunities for All;” opponents highlight “Keep Discrimination Illegal” and “Equal Opportunity for All.”

Both sides can see if the measure has made any headway when the Public Policy Institute of California releases a new poll on Wednesday.

Adusumilli, the UC Davis computer science major, said an environment of intolerance in the country makes the time ripe to overturn the ban.

“I don't think anybody can look at the events of the past few months — or even the past few years with Black Lives Matter, the treatment of immigrants in our current administration — and say that we have developed sufficient immunity to the virus of prejudice and discrimination as a society.”