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A New Holistic Approach to Affirmative Action: An Analysis of a Contemporary News Article


In their April 6th, 2007 Los Angeles Times article, Rebecca Trounson and Richard Paddock report the increase in black student admissions at UCLA. Their account implicitly supports a holistic approach to affirmative action through selectively presenting statistics and evidence. Trounson and Paddock, like John Rawls, believe that preferential treatment must be given to the least advantaged members of society.

Affirmative action, as pertains to American higher education, refers to the advancement of under-represented minorities, which especially includes African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Affirmative action can be considered a benefit not only for the minorities who are given preferential treatment, but also for the rest of the student body since they benefit from the experiences and insight that diverse students have to offer. Kevin Johnson, the associate Dean for Academic Affairs at UC Davis, however, points out that “... affirmative action can become a crutch that renders it unlikely that universities will make serious efforts to design and implement alternative methods for ensuring a diverse student body”(7). For this reason and other factors, in 1996, California voters passed “... Proposition 209 or the ‘Civil Rights Initiative,’ which ended affirmative action in the University of California and California State University systems” (Johnson 3). With the banning of affirmative action, the numbers of under-represented racial minorities decreased, bringing about a reduction in racial diversity levels on UC campuses. In order to abide lawfully by Proposition 209, yet at the same time include diversity in admissions, many “... public universities experimented with race neutral schemes to help ensure a diverse student body” (Johnson 3). In particular, UCLA tried to increase diversity by instituting a new holistic admissions process, in which race factors were replaced by social and economic factors.

Trounson and Paddock use the testimonies of two UCLA students to shed light on the true meaning of diversity. The authors quote UCLA student Aaron Whittington’s opinion of diversity: “’I think it’s good, but I don’t think it’s good enough,’ ... ‘I would like to see numbers high for all minorities on campus, not just African Americans’” (2). An ambiguity exists because Whittington uses the word “minorities” without specifying the kind of minorities he means, whether they be racial, socioeconomic, or of another type. The ambiguity is cleared when Trounson and Paddock quote Phillip Tu, another UCLA student, as saying “’I do think we need more diversity,’ Tu said. ‘In our careers, we deal with all different kinds of people. You have to know about different cultures’” (2). Tu adresses two important aspects of diversity in his quote. First Tu implies that diversity has compensating benefits for all students, since it teaches them about different people and different cultures, which the students will later encounter in jobs. Second, Tu points out that diversity does not only include racial minorities, but also includes many different kinds of people, namely those of disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds. 

Trounson and Paddock describe the past and present UCLA admission years in varying degrees of exigency in order to introduce the remedial aspects of the holistic admissions process. Over the past year, they claim that the number of black students “reached a crisis last fall, when only about 100 black freshmen enrolled” (1). The word “crisis” lacks neutrality because it is used in such a way that escalates the recent increase in black admissions to exaggerated proportions. Furthermore, the crisis revolves around black students, and implicitly makes them the least advantaged students, or rather victims in UCLA’s former admission system. In contrast to the past year, however, Trounson and Paddock report that the latest 2007 data “on freshman admissions was greeted with satisfaction and a measure of relief by UCLA administrators and others who had expressed concern about declining numbers of black students” (1). The words “measure of relief” and “greeted with satisfaction” generalize the increase in black admissions to not only be good for administrators and those expressing concern, but also to be good for all parties involved. Moreover, Trounson and Paddock assert that the new holistic admissions was instituted “partly in response to the low African American numbers” (1). Thus, the holistic admissions system abated the “crisis” in black student admissions without violating Proposition 209. In this manner the authors introduce the new holistic admissions process as a corrective system which gives preferential treatment to the least advantaged members of society, whom in this case are black students.

Besides characterizing black students as the least advantaged students, Trounson and Paddock also use selective ordering to show how the holistic admissions system helps those who are disadvantaged socioeconomically. Trounson and Paddock suggest that increases in black student admissions “... might be year-to-year fluctuations and others could be the result of the new admissions system, which UCLA officials have said is fairer for all applicants because it allows their achievements to be viewed in context” (1). Year-to-year fluctuations are mentioned first, which implies that random fluctuations supercede the effects of a new holistic admissions process. However, if the number of black admits increased from 249 to 392 (57% increase), it seems more likely that the new holistic admissions program supercedes random variance. Furthermore, the authors choose to designate the holistic admissions process as not only more fair to black applicants, but also more fair to all applicants. Rawls takes a similar position when he writes of “... social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, [which] are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least  advantaged members of society” (202). While Rawls makes no specific mention of race when mentioning inequalities, he does mention social and economic inequalities. In a similar manner, Trounson and Paddock write that the new admissions system does not “take race into account”, but rather focuses on the student’s social and economic background (1). In this manner, the least advantaged members of society change from black students to a larger group of students who are disadvantaged by social or economic circumstances.

In addition to using selective ordering to support the holistic admissions process, Trounson and Paddock also try to show that Asian American students are not perturbed by the holistic admission system. Before directly quoting Candice Shikai, “a UCLA junior who is a leader of UCLA’s Asian Pacific Coalition”, Trounson and Paddock mention that Shikai “... noted the drop in Asian Americans in the admitted class, but said [that] she and other Asian American students were happy to see black admissions rise” (2). The implication is that Asians American students only “note” the drop in their race’s admissions, and instead of being upset, they are “happy”. After supplying this background information, the authors cite Shikai’s quote: “’It’s really great that the African American admissions increased, but I think we still need to realize that there are communities within the Asian community – Pacific Islanders and some of the Southeast Asian communities – that lack access...” (2). While Shikai approves of the increase in black student admissions, she makes explicit mention of some Asian communities that are still disadvantaged. Trounson and Paddock mention the lack of access, to show that the affirmative action cannot be grounded on race alone, but must also help those who fall victim to social or economic inequality. In a similar fashion, Rawls asserts that the principles of justice “... express the result of leaving aside those aspects of the social world that seem arbitrary from a moral point of view” (202). Ethnicity is a subset of these arbitrary social aspects, which is why some students, regardless of race, can be characterized as disadvantaged students who need to be given preferential treatment in admissions.

In order to make the disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged students more pronounced, Trounson and Paddock intermix small and big data samples in such a way that gives a platform for holistic admissions. After declaring that “... only about 100 black freshmen enrolled -- or about 2% of a class of more than 4,800”, Trounson and Paddock immediately mention that “... 57,318 Californians were offered admission to at least one UC campus; 11,837 students were accepted to UCLA” (1). To make the number of black students seem even smaller, the authors never explicitly mention the number of black students admitted in the UC system, but rather the overall number of Californians, and students admitted to UCLA. Thus, they shift from blacks numbers at UCLA to the general UC accepted numbers to emphasize the disparity that needs to be corrected. In another case, right after mentioning that one of Philip Tu’s nursing class had only two black students out of sixty, Trounson and Paddock add that the University of California as a whole “... offered places for the fall at one or more of its nine undergraduate campuses to a record 57,318 incoming freshmen from California, officials said. That amounts to 77.4% of the high school students who applied, many of whom were admitted to more than one campus” (2). These two sentences have no relation whatsoever to the admissions at UCLA, let alone for black students at UCLA. However these statistics are again employed to give the authors an air of credibility which furthers the need to correct the diversity problem. Furthermore, by including statistics emphasizing the disparity between small and large numbers of students, Trounson and Paddock push the idea that the holistic admissions process can correct this problem by giving preferential treatment to the least advantaged students.

            Trounson and Paddock also use statistics in another manner, in which the adjectives that describe the statistics show the holistic system’s compensating benefits to both Asian and black students. When mentioning the black student increase, Trounson and Paddock contend that the percentage of admitted blacks “went up from 2.1% a year ago to 3.4%”, but when mentioning a similar percentage for Asian students, Trounson and Paddock assert that the “proportion of Asian and Asian American students offered UCLA admission dropped slightly, from 45.6% for current freshmen –or 5,390 students – to 43.1% or 4,956 students” (2).  The proportion of admitted blacks at UCLA changed by 1.3%, which is almost twice as small a proportion change as that of Asian students (2.5%), yet there is no adjective such as “slightly” to describe the black proportion change. Trounson and Paddock attempt to justify their usage of the word slightly by writing that “... as they have for many years, [Asians] made up the largest racial or ethnic group in the newly admitted class” (2). The implication is that this drop is just since Asians have dominated in the past. According to Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness, however, the decrease in Asian students cannot be justified solely on the basis of race. The holistic admissions process is in accord with Rawls since it gives preference to students who have disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds, instead of students who are underrepresented racial minorities. 

Trounson and Paddock also use selective evidence in order to support affirmative action under the new holistic system. When Trounson and Paddock first mention Ward Connerly, they simultaneously acknowledge that he is “the conservative former UC regent and architect of Proposition 209” (2). By calling Connerly the architect of Proposition 209, which has already been established as the main reason why black students are scarce at UCLA, Trounson and Paddock equate a bad connotation with the word conservative. While they mention Connerly’s political orientation, the authors do not mention Chancellor Abrams’ political orientation. Trounson and Paddock do however quote Connerly’s viewpoint: “’Black kids have either gotten extremely smart or extremely competitive in a way they weren't five or six years ago, or there's been a deliberate, carefully orchestrated effort by a lot of admissions people to conspire to increase those numbers, or they've found a proxy for race.’” (2). Connerly essentially criticizes the new holistic process as a way to circumvent Proposition 209, and still take race into account. Trounson and Paddock do not give equal weight to both sides of the isssue, for they immediately support Connerly’s opposition by writing: “But about a dozen members of a community coalition that has pushed UCLA for change held a news conference Thursday to praise the school and its leaders” (2). Trounson and Paddock attempt to invalidate the opposition to the new holistic system by strongly over-representing the supportive side. This is especially true when Trounson and Paddock mention that the supportive side includes “... the Alliance for Equal Opportunity in Education, a consortium of leaders from African American churches, civil rights organizations and UCLA student and alumni groups that formed after the enrollment numbers were released last June” (2). In light of the variegated and strong support for the new holistic process, Ward Connerly’s position looks weak in comparison.

As has been shown, Trounson and Paddock use evidence and statistics in such a manner that implicitly supports UCLA’s new holistic admissions process. In doing so, Trounson and Paddock show that the holistic admissions process is consistent with Rawls’ theory of justice. Preferential treatment, however, must not be given solely on the basis of race, as affirmative action commonly advocates, but rather on a combination of social and economic factors.


Works Cited

Jacobus, Lee A. A World of Ideas, New York, NY: Bedford/St. Martins 2006.

Johnson, Kevin R. "The last twenty five years of affirmative action?." Constitutional Commentary 21.1 (Spring 2004): 171(20). Expanded Academic ASAP. Gale. UC Los Angeles. 24 Nov. 2007 <http://find.galegroup.com/itx/start.do?prodId=EAIM>.

Paddock, Richard, Rebecca Trounson. "UCLA sees an increase in black student admissions; The Westwood campus offers spots in its fall class to 392 African American students, up from 249 a year ago :[HOME EDITION]. " Los Angeles Times  [Los Angeles, Calif.] 6  Apr. 2007,B.1. Los Angeles Times. ProQuest UCLA Library, Los Angeles, 90095, CA. 24 Nov. 2007 http://www.proquest.com/.


2006 Philosophy Paradise