Community college leaders urge voters: vote YES on Prop 16

Pamela Haynes
Cassandra Jennings

The California Community Colleges Board of Governors voted recently to endorse Proposition 16 on the November ballot, doing so unanimously and with clear understanding of what it means to create more equitable opportunities for all people. This endorsement is a critical step toward achieving long-sought equity in higher education, especially for people of color.

But such clarity is not seen by all. In fact, there is a great deal of confusion – dare we say, denial – around exactly how the necessary passage of Prop. 16 would help correct years of inequitable practices and historic injustices this country was built around:

Didn’t we erase inequality in California when we banned consideration of race, sex and ethnicity in 1996? No. Will there be quotas in college admissions? No; quotas have been illegal since 1978. Will this ultimately help improve student outcomes and access to social and economic opportunities? A resounding yes.

In this era of social unrest due to racism and the outcry over the murder of George Floyd, many lessons continue to be learned, a primary one among them is we have a chance to get it right. We can start right here in California with measures that consciously promote programs, initiatives and policies that embrace community and inclusion.

Prop. 16 will repeal, Prop. 209, that began misfiring when it went into effect in 1996, making California one of only eight states in the U.S. that disallows consideration of race or gender in decisions on hiring or accepting students into public higher education institutions. We have backslid ever since, and equity in higher education has suffered greatly.

Within the community colleges system, which doesn’t have admissions restrictions, 73 percent of our 2.1 million student population are students of color, immigrants or both. Compared to their white counterparts, Black and Latinx students have low transfer and completion rates because the means to support them don’t exist in the way they should.

The reasons why we need to open paths to opportunity seem obvious. Blacks have below-average health outcomes directly due to a lack of equal opportunity; three percent of physicians in California are Black even though they comprise six percent of the population; expanding access through equal opportunity initiatives and investment will pave the way for young Blacks to potentially become physicians and researchers.

Prop. 209 put 30 years of affirmative action on ice in California in 1996, prohibiting consideration of race, sex and ethnicity in admission to public employment, public education and public contracting. The argument for that move was to eliminate such consideration in the interest of equality.

But, it didn’t work. Prop. 209 hindered equality by deterring higher education systems like the California Community Colleges, University of California and California State University from implementing race-conscious programs, such as those designed to ensure equitable access.

Prop. 16 would begin to correct and repair the damage done by perpetual discriminatory practices and policies. In higher education, Prop. 16 would have the effect of reinstating affirmative action to permit colleges and universities to implement race-conscious strategies to communities of color in terms of student recruitment, counseling, and other supports, as well as hiring of administrators and faculty.

The treatment of countless other people of color gives new urgency to this correction for California. Prop. 209 has actually reduced the percentages of underrepresented students admitted to public higher education institutions in our state, it is in direct conflict with our community college Vision for Success and efforts to close equity gaps.

Transfer and completion rates are startling. The fact is, UC and CSU students are our students at community colleges, too. If our students of color are provided with important race-conscious programs to encourage enrollment and transfer so they can complete a degree, their transition to a four-year institution will be smoother. Even though community colleges do not have admissions requirements and accept the top 100 percent of students, a holistic approach that includes race-conscious policies across all levels of the higher education journey is imperative.

It’s time to do so and it is right in line with the California Community Colleges recent Call to Action, urging system leaders, faculty, staff and students to join together to fight systemic racism within higher education. Such CCC programs, bolstered by the passage of Prop. 16, would include much-needed targeted recruitment and enhanced outreach to communities of color.

Another impact of Prop. 16 will be the increased hiring of faculty and leadership of color. It is empirically proven that decreasing racial and gender gaps among our instructors and administrators will improve student outcomes. Seeing yourself in those you are being guided by is vital and can be achieved with diversity, equity and inclusion.

Our social unrest demands we do things better. The economic uncertainty in these strange pandemic times has led us to where we are today. We need not be uncertain or confused at all about equity. Characteristics of our humanity, our race, gender, ethnicity and more make us who we are. Why would we not consider the whole person as we work toward an equitable coexistence in this land of opportunity?

by Pamela Haynes, Vice President of the California Community Colleges Board of Gorvenors,
and Cassandra Jennings, President and CEO of the Greater Sacramento Urban League and Co-Chair of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Black and African American Advisory Panel