Connerly ends regent term

    Ward Connerly, the highly controversial figure who earned a national reputation after leading the successful charge to dismantle affirmative action in California, attended his last official meeting in his 12-year tenure as a UC regent on Jan. 20.

    Connerly’s stance against race-based admissions turned him into one of the most widely known and divisive figures in California, called an upstanding hero by supporters and an “Uncle Tom” by critics.

    “He is a very principled, ethical person and I’m proud to know him,” said attorney Sharon Browne of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which supported Connerly’s efforts to ban racial preferences. “I’m sure he’ll be missed.”

    His critics, however, disagree.

    “Connerly has turned UC into a backwater of segregation,” said Yvette Felarca, spokeswoman for By Any Means Necessary, a pro-affirmative action group critical of Connerly. “Frankly, we are happy to see him go.”

    The charged debate began shortly after former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Connerly to the UC Board of Regents in 1993. Connerly, who describes himself as Irish, Native American and black, took on the issue of race, proposing that affirmative action be eliminated from UC admission policies.

    In July 1995, after a 13-hour session interrupted by a bomb threat and punctuated by protesters led by Rev. Jesse Jackson, the regents voted 14-10 in favor of Connerly’s proposal, eliminating the consideration of race from UC admissions.

    A year later, Connerly went on to co-author and champion Proposition 209, which prohibited consideration of race in all of California’s public employment, education and contracting.

    “He is a courageous person for tackling this issue,” Browne said. “The government should be treating everybody equally, without regard to race or sex. He has made California a better place for everybody and improved how government and education are run.”

    Opponents of the proposition, however, have argued that racial consideration is necessary for minorities to overcome societal obstacles.

    “We don’t live in a color-blind society,” said Tammeil Gilkerson, program director at the Greenlining Institute, a liberal think tank that has been critical of the university’s diversity policies. “There is racism entrenched in the system. At UCSD, for example, only 24 African-American males were admitted in fall of 2004. … That doesn’t reflect the diversity of California.”

    Connerly’s opponents have also charged that his efforts against affirmative action were a premeditated political maneuver endorsed by Wilson.

    “If you know anything about the right wing, they are smart and deliberate,” Gilkerson said. “An obscure businessman who happens to be black gets appointed as a regent. … It’s putting a black face on a white policy. I don’t think that it was a coincidence.”

    Connerly and his supporters have always denied this charge.

    “I think the ‘Uncle Tom’ remarks deeply affected him,” UC Students Association President Jennifer Lilla said. “I’ve been at meetings where he went into the back room and cried. If this was just political, he wouldn’t have been so hurt by those accusations.”

    After successfully campaigning for Proposition 209, Connerly continued his fight against racial consideration, attempting, unsuccessfully, to eliminate the collection of racial data by government employees through a 2003 ballot measure, Proposition 54.

    When it failed, Connerly proposed a multiracial category for students applying to the University of California; he was the only regent to vote for the proposal.

    Despite his highly publicized and controversial stance on racial issues, Connerly has often allied himself strongly with UC students and staff, according to Lilla.

    “He was really in tune with students on other issues,” Lilla said. “He was adamantly against fee increases, more vociferously so than any other regent. He ardently pushed for domestic partnership rights and co-authored resolutions to support state outreach programs.”

    But it will be Connerly’s crusade against affirmative action, and not his effort in these endeavors, that will be is lasting legacy, she said.

    “The race stuff will always overshadow his legacy,” Lilla said. “All the good things he did, and the thoughtfulness he had, will be lost.”

    Connerly is campaigning in Michigan to pass similar legislation against racial and sexual preference in public employment and education.

    UC campuses now employ a “comprehensive review” process for student admission based on a variety of factors, including the circumstances under which the student grew up.

    Connerly’s office did not return calls seeking comment.

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