Backers say affirmative-action policies are needed to combat the legacy of racial discrimination and level the playing field for minorities who are more likely to attend inferior high schools. Colleges benefit from diverse student bodies, and minority students often become leaders in their communities after graduating from top colleges.
"It's critical that our most selective institutions that look at least somewhat like the rest of our society," Nassirian said.
Ward Connerly, an African-American businessman who has led a national campaign against affirmative action, sees the practice as a form of racial discrimination.
"I don't believe in proportionality," said Connerly, who heads the American Civil Rights Institute. "The taxpayers have a right to say that we want every kid to be treated without regard to race, color, creed or national origin."
Connerly became wary of UC's efforts to admit more underrepresented minorities when he was a university regent in the 1990s. He pushed the board to bar UC from considering race in school admissions in early 1996 before he helped qualify Proposition 209 for the ballot that year.
"I looked at the extent of our diversity efforts and I concluded we were a lawsuit waiting to happen," Connerly said. "There was a very clear view that we had to be concerned about the growing Asian influence at the University of California."
The year after California's ban took effect, the number of black, Latino and Native American students plummeted by roughly half at Berkeley and UCLA, the UC system's most sought-after campuses.
Voters in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Washington and Nebraska have since approved similar bans with similar results.
At the University of Washington, the number of underrepresented minorities dropped by a third after voters banned affirmative action in 1998.
Despite consistent opposition, California's ban has remained enshrined in law. Earlier this month, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Proposition 209 for the second time. The three-judge panel rejected a legal challenge in which Gov. Jerry Brown joined minority students in arguing the law is unconstitutional.
Affirmative-action advocates say Proposition 209 has created a "new Jim Crow regime" in California, where elite public colleges are dominated by white and Asian students while black and Hispanic students are relegated to less prestigious campuses.
"It is extraordinary that the vast majority of high school graduates in this state are minorities, and they're denied the opportunities to go to their state universities," said attorney Shanta Driver for the group By Any Means Necessary, which filed suit to overturn the ban.
UC officials have tried to increase campus diversity by admitting the top 9 percent of graduates from each high school, conducting a "holistic review" of applications that decreases the weight of standardized test scores and eliminating the requirement to take SAT subject exams.
Administrators note the number of Hispanic students at UC's nine undergraduates has been steadily increasing. The California residents admitted to the UC system for this fall are 36 percent Asian American, 28 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic and 4 percent African American, according to the latest figures.
"We're very interested in a diverse student body that reflects the state of California and the nation," said UC provost Larry Pitts. "We have reasonable diversity, but not as much as we would like."
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