This Date in UCSF History: UC Misses Affirmative Action Goals

Monday, February 15, 2021

Originally published in Synapse on February 16, 1984. Next week, UCSF will be sponsoring a day-long symposium, “Affirmative Action in Higher Education.” The program comes at a key time — during Black History Month, and following a report released last January by UC systemwide administration which indicated only meager increases in the number of women and minorities on the university’s faculty.

Speakers in the program will analyze the reasons for both the success of affirmative action in some areas, and for the stagnation and difficulty associated with making systemic changes in large institutions.

For the following article, Synapse contacted two of these speakers for a preview of their thoughts and concerns.

In the decade since the notion of “affirmative action” eclipsed “equality of opportunity” as the strategic goal for advocates of women’s and minority rights, changes have been mixed at best.

While increasing numbers of women are entering the ranks of students in fields from computer science to medicine, the figures are less encouraging for blacks and other minority groups.

And other aspects of higher education, such as faculty composition, have been particularly discouraging.

A case in point is the UC faculty. Despite years of planning and discussion, debate and policy development, progress remains lackluster.

A combination of complex factors — including antiquated attitudes, budget cuts and outright discrimination, as pointed out by members of the Chancellor’s Advisory

Committee on the Status of Women last year — have resulted in the disappointing statistics released by systemwide administration.

Joanne Lewis, who will speak at next week’s “Affirmative Action in Higher Education” symposium, is in a unique position to evaluate progress in the UC system.

As UCSF’s original affirmative action officer, serving from 1972 to 1978, she initiated many of the programs and policies still in place here.

Lewis criticized systemwide administration.

“I think the university as a whole has failed to create a clear affirmative action policy,” she said.

But she considers UCSF unique — more advanced than systemwide and the rest of the campuses in many respects.

In part, she attributes UCSF’s traditionally strong concerns about affirmative action to the fact that it’s primarily a graduate campus; and to UCSF’s unique — and possibly more humanistic — health sciences specialization.

“The environment in San Francisco has always been a little different, more responsive (on affirmative action), particularly towards students and staff,” she observed, pointing out that this campus had an affirmative action admissions program long before the concept was in full swing at the rest of the university.

Lewis emphasized UCSF’s commitment to an overall view of affirmative action: Years ago, the campus took on the task of providing assistance in what was a case of housing discrimination, when UCSF helped the student sue the landlord.

“I thought that was a good example of the acceptance of the total student,” she noted.

To Lewis, the task of increasing the ranks of women and minorities among the faculty rests largely on the hiring process — who is involved and how it is structured and defined.

“I think until we have more women in the position of evaluating women, and more minorities in the position of evaluating minorities,” she said, this problem will continue.

Lewis sees traditional appraisal of candidates for faculty posts as being heavily male dominated, with research and teaching overshadowing other important factors.

“Women and minorities are always called to serve on committees, represent the university at various functions, counsel students,” she said. “Then the university says, ‘They’re very good in these community activities, but not as strong in research and teaching.’”

The university pushes women and minorities into these institution-support roles, she said, for which they are seen as uniquely well-qualified.

Then, according to Lewis, they are indirectly penalized for spending time away from straight academic work.


Dr. Leith Mullings, director of the Social Sciences Program of the School of Biomedical Education at the City College of New York, will address the question of “institutional barriers to higher education.”

Mullings disagrees with analyses of affirmative action, which attribute a lack of progress to an inadequate pool of women and minorities to choose from — an argument used, in part, by the university.

She sees this as blaming the victim.

“The problems do not necessarily lie with the qualifications of groups trying to overcome the obstacles,” Mullings said.

Rather, institutions are constructed to keep people out — which she called “the gatekeeping function.”

She cited the affluent-white-male-dominated field of medicine as a prime example.

“The criteria used for admissions often have little to do with the qualities needed for the job, but rather serve this ‘gatekeeping’ function,” Mullings said.

According to Mullings, performance on the National Medical Board Examinations, traditionally more difficult for minority students to pass, bears little relationship to quality of performance as a physician.

Public vs. private

Mullings also noted the importance of progress in the private sector as it affects public institutions, such as UC.

She pointed out that it’s the American Medical Association — the farthest thing from a public institution — which defines many of the standards and principles of medical education.

So to a large degree, public-university improvements cannot survive in a vacuum.

Mullings considers the Reagan administration’s policy and attitude towards affirmative action a massive institutional barrier at this time.

She sees the Reagan budget cuts to education as affecting “both students and the nature of the institutions.”

By this she means that many women and minorities who came into higher education through the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s are now being squeezed out with diminished financial resources used as a pretext or excuse.

Increasing numbers of women in medical schools across the nation during the last decade give some cause for hope, Mullings said, but should be put into context.

Such gains, important as they may be, are clouded by questions of race and class.

Though more and more women have entered medical school, the average wage of women in all occupations has declined relative to men.

Of vital importance, said Mullings, is ensuring that the gains made by a narrow demographic band of women in a field like medicine filter down to impact the status of minority and working class women as a whole.