Case Questions Meaning of Outreach

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A case argued before the state Supreme Court yesterday could have a profound impact on the UC system's outreach policies, which have been a major part of the university's efforts to attract underrepresented minority students in the wake of Proposition 209.

Currently under review in San Francisco, the case deals with San Jose's system of granting construction contracts. Firms bidding for city business must show evidence that they have sought out or already use minority or female subcontractors.

An electrical business filed the suit, claiming that the requirement violates the theme of the proposition. The 1996 referendum prohibits preferences for women and minorities in public education and hiring.

But juxtaposing the ruling onto the university's situation, the court's decision may have broader implications for the UC system, which has embarked on a massive outreach campaign since the regents first banned race and gender preferences in 1995.

Ward Connerly, a UC regent and Proposition 209 advocate, said yesterday he thinks a ruling in San Jose's favor could allow the university to dodge the law.

He pointed to a scenario similar to the current San Jose situation in which the university could admit students based on their participation in outreach programs.

"Once we give a preference on the basis of outreach, we're going to give priority to students who have a part in outreach programs," he said. "That would be, in effect, a way around Proposition 209. This is government money, and the intent of 209 is that no government money would be used on the basis of race. You've opened the floodgates."

In another important aspect of the case, the court could address the issue of specific versus general preference - targeting one group instead of simply expanding access to education and contracting.

"The court did raise the questions as to the appropriateness of what I call universal outreach as opposed to targeted or focused outreach," said John Findley, an attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation. The conservative law firm has been a key player in many of the court battles following Proposition 209, and is representing Connerly personally in his efforts to define Proposition 209 in the courts.

University spokesperson Terry Lightfoot, however, said he thinks the ruling will not affect the university.

"In terms of our outreach, we have moved forward with the understanding that providing outreach does not constitute a preference," he said. "Right now, we are working under the understanding that providing outreach information to students and others on what it takes to enroll in and be eligible for the University of California is not prohibited under Proposition 209."

While the university's current outreach program may target specific groups - Latinos, blacks and Native Americans - it is not a requirement handed down from the regents, and therefore may well be immune to the ruling, said Graduate Assembly President Eli Illano.

"If UC had a policy that required outreach offices to outreach to particular a minority, (it would be different)," he said. "It's what UC does by choice, what some outreach officers' staff do, but it's not a regental policy."

A definitive ruling, Illano said, could have even broader implications.

"Doing targeted outreach - everybody does that," he said. "Will this mean the recreation department can't target outreach for their lifeguards to the swim team?"

The court will hand down its decision - which is final - within 90 days.


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