This article is a contribution by freelance writer Charles C. Johnson.
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Of the many enduring questions about Barack Obama’s past, perhaps none figures more than that of his still-unreleased academic records. But a series of articles written in Occidental College’s student newspaper, The Occidental, in 1978-1979 sheds new light on how Obama may have been admitted through the liberal arts college’s renewed, “hard nosed” and “rigorous” commitment to increasing the numbers of black and Chicano students and faculty on campus.
Federal privacy laws prohibit anyone, save Obama, from releasing material from his academic years, but contemporaneous documentation from the time gives strong indication of how he might have been admitted to the Southern California liberal arts college, despite an admitted lackluster academic performance at Punahou School, an elite Hawaiian prep school.
Fortunately for Obama, he applied to Occidental during a time of declining enrollment of blacks and Latinos and an invigorated commitment to increase the racial diversity of the faculty, student body, and “diversify” the curriculum. The year that Obama applied to Occidental College the numbers of black and Hispanic students was at an eight-year low. Indeed, only eighteen blacks matriculated at Occidental in the fall of 1978, down seven from 1977.
“In recent years, a marked decrease in the number of minority students attending college has provoked complaints from black and Chicano leaders as well as concerned college administrators,” wrote The Occidental’s Bill Davis and Tom Hammitt in “Minority enrollment plummets” on January 19, 1979. “The number of students of minority background at Occidental has declined sharply over the past two years. Fewer blacks and Chicanos attend the college than at any time during the past eight years. Current admissions reports show a 10% decline in the number of minority applicants compared to this date last year.”
The decline in admissions came as Occidental was increasing its standard for admission. “Efforts to upgrade the academic standards for minority students accepted by Occidental are another cause of the decline in representation of minority students on campus,” the same article reported. “It used to be that we’d take (minority applicants) if there was any chance of them succeeding. Now we’re being more selective,” Dean Benjamin Culley said. To help attract a higher quality minority student, Culley awarded financial aid differently based upon race. “Black and Chicano students, who comprise 10.2% of the student body, will receive approximately 33% of the funds available through his office,” Culley told the student newspaper.
Associate Dean of Students Yolanda Garcia suggested that the college had been race-norming, or adjusting scores on standardized test to have separate curves for different racial groups. Davis and Hammitt wrote that “some ethnic distinctions are made in the admissions process, particularly with regard to SAT scores” in regards to their interview with Garcia. It still wasn’t enough. As part of the consequences of a phenomenon that would later be known as the “mismatch effect,” Occidental was having difficulty attracting a quality minority student body, in large measure because the students eligible for admission to Occidental were going to higher ranked schools, like Stanford, instead. Fewer blacks and Latinos were completing their academic careers at Occidental than whites.
Hiring Based on Race
Meanwhile, a controversy over how diverse Occidental would be in the future was reaching a boiling point, and how Occidental could diversify its professorial pool. John C. Drew, the Marxist-turned-conservative, wrote on October 13, 1978 that some activists for affirmative action wanted the college to pay a premium for minority professors.
“Students at the [affirmative action] retreat also argued that minority professors were a scarce commodity and that having an ethnic background or being a woman should be considered as part of the qualities that Occidental College wants in a professor. If economics professors had to have higher salaries to attract them to Oxy, minority professors should be treated in a similar manner,” he wrote.
After the retreat and the year before Obama arrived on campus, a faculty meeting took place that decided the future of affirmative action. Norman Cohen, a Marxist who headed the Affirmative Action Committee, concluded that there was “no progress” on racial diversity on campus — the lack of which prompted black art professor, Mary Jane Hewitt, to resign in protest.
Hewitt’s departure, however, had profound consequences for Occidental’s approach to racial matters in hiring and student enrollment. Hewitt’s resignation ultimately made “people more willing (to diversify). It’s amazing how this dominates the campus. There’s interest. There’s concern. There’s willingness to work,” said Jane Jaquette, who became the co-chair of the Affirmative Action Committee with Anne Howells after Cohen left for a sabbatical in England. (Howells would go on to teach Obama Introduction to Literary Theory and to write his letter of recommendation for transfer to Columbia, because Obama, in her words, “wanted a wider urban experience.”)
The new chairs brought new attention to affirmative action on campus. “The Affirmative Action Committee promises more minority profs,” ran the headline in The Occidental on February 9, 1979. (Bill Davis and Tom Hammitt, “Affirmative Action Committee promises minority profs,” The Occidental, February 9, 1979.)
While neither Howells, nor Jaquette used the word “quotas,” there was little doubt that quotas were what was being considered. The Occidental laid out the numbers:
In American Studies, all four candidates being considered in the final selection are black. Religious Studies reports two black males among the five final candidates for the appointment. Economics includes one black PhD in its short list. Language and Linguistics two blacks and one Chicano candidate, and Art one Chicano applicant…”
Sometimes blacks made it into the final consideration simply because they were black. In the same article, the papers says the college ws searching for a “‘radical,’ non-Keynesian economist,” and economics Chairman Woody Studenmund admitted that sometimes racial considerations were preeminent. “In all honesty, [a black candidate] wouldn’t be in the top twelve [for a position] if he were not a minority,” he told the paper.
The committee even proposed paying minority professors more money to attract them to the campus as part of an “agreement…to go outside of the normal bounds on salaries,” the February 9 article makes clear.
“(Black and Chicano professors) are bringing a quality to the campus that we want to have. You pay for that quality, based on what the job market is,” Jaquette explained.
“In six academic departments currently hiring new professors, nine black and two Chicano candidates have progressed to the semi-final selection rounds,” wrote Davis and Hammitt. “Estimates from the department sources guarantee the hiring of at least one minority candidate and possibly more this year…The increased number of black and Chicano candidates in faculty applicant pools can be attributed to growing faculty commitment, the coordinating efforts made by the Affirmative Action Committee and the Dean of Faculty[.]”
Recruiting more black and Chicano professors was necessary to attract more black and Chicano students, explained Howells.
“A ‘critical mass’ of minority instructors is necessary to establish a multi-cultural base to the college,” she told the article’s authors. A “nucleus of minority faculty members here makes it easier to attract more [minority faculty] after that. It’s the same thing as with minority students.” How many blacks and Hispanics would be enough for a critical mass? “We’d like to have as many as we can,” said Howells. “I’m sure we’ll see an increase over the next five years,” Howells said. “People are really going on this direction.”
Unsurprisingly, the numbers of blacks and Latinos in the 1979-1980 school year grew to 25 black and 29 Chicano freshmen, according to The Occidental College Magazine. Of the total number of black freshmen, 19 were granted a total of $51,878 ($184,000 in today’s money) in scholarships; of the Chicano freshmen, 22 were granted a total of $39,100 (138,000 in today’s money). State assistance and funds from the institutions themselves make up more than 50 percent of all financial aid and more than 70 percent of grant aid to minorities, noted an admissions officer at the time.
“Occidental Couldn’t Give a Damn if It Returned to All [Anglo]”
More black and Chicano students and professors also meant more black and Chicano courses. “I think the curriculum is changing with respect to openness to so-called minority courses,” Jaquette told the paper on February 9. “If we can get minority people on campus, the curriculum will change. The departments have shown themselves willing, and these people will come here with an interest in diversifying.”
To help that process along, Occidental created an official “Minority Recruitment Day” on March 28, 1979, where it brought approximately 400 black, Chicano, and Asian high school students from 12 Los Angeles inner-city schools to present them with a “very down to earth view on why to go to college, and why to come to Occidental,” according to administrator Jim Reskin. (Tom Hammitt, “ASOC schedules Minority Recruitment Day,” The Occidental, February 16, 2012)
Unlike other school recruitments, this one was led by two activist organizations on campus, MeCha for Latinos and UJIMA, for blacks. “We want it to be student run because this is something which nobody else is doing,” Reskin told the paper. “The visiting students will not be badgered by people wearing suits and ties.”
Ironically, UJIMA’s executive coordinator, Michael Harris, and administrative coordinator, Sara-Etta Harris, may not have encouraged many blacks to attend. “Racism in an institutional arrangement definitely exists here,” Michael Harris told The Occidental. “For many black students, the Occidental experience is a very alienating experience. It really detaches you from your community. It really drains you. I’ve known students who left Occidental and refused ever to come back.” Sata-Etta Harris agreed. “From what I’ve seen in my three years here, Occidental couldn’t give a damn if it returned to all [Anglo].”
Both Harrises encouraged the college to go out of its way to recruit more black and minority faculty. According to the same Occidental article, “Recruiting such a faculty, said Michal Harris, demands a different approach to departmental hiring than is generally used—qualified blacks and Chicano instructors often suffered roadblocks in their careers that make them appear on their resumes to be less qualified and talented than their white competitors.”
Occidental’s Racial History and the Black Student Caucus
The decision to admit more blacks came as part of the tumult of the ‘60s. Occidental began concerted efforts at minority recruitment in the spring of 1964, with the aid of $275,000 granted by the Rockefeller Foundation,” wrote Hammitt in the second installment on minority students at Occidental called, “Turbulent past of minority student radicalism reviewed.” The grant was to be “seed money” to recruit more blacks and Latino students and similar amounts were given to other liberal arts colleges throughout America. The numbers of blacks on campus increased in 1967, growing to 44 black and 33 Chicano students, but that was not satisfactory for the Black Student Caucus.
“There is a growing desire for identity in the Negro community. We are telling ourselves that we are going to develop as Negroes,” a BSC spokesman told The Occidental in November 1967. “We intend to accumulate as much information as we can, in any form, concerning ourselves and that which affects us particularly as blacks.”
On January 27, 1968, the BSC held a forum titled, “Black-White Confrontation,” which drew over three hundred members of the Occidental community and where a BSC leader upbraided the school for not offering jazz, African art, Negro history, or courses on black politics, like Malcolm X. “The forum also revealed a growing cultural awareness and unity among black Occidental students,” the paper reported at the time.
The Black Student Caucus was a forerunner of UJIMA, a black radical group whose meetings Barack Obama would later attend. He would also later attend meetings long into the night at Columbia’s Malcolm X Lounge, a place intended for blacks and christened by Eric Holder Jr., his future attorney General.
Dissatisfied with the numbers of blacks on campus, the Black Student Caucus led forty students and a few faculty members into the president’s office on May 28, 1968. Though the students and faculty were thrown out of the president’s office, many of their demands carried the day. “The demands included requests for more intense minority student recruitment, a more ethnically diverse faculty, and the expansion of the academic curriculum to include courses more sensitive to black students’ needs and interests,” wrote Tom Hammitt in the “Turbulent” article.
Obama as a Student
Perhaps Barack Obama was actually brilliant around the time of his college years, but his own words about his schooling at Punahou and Occidental give us reason to doubt that. In his first book, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama describes himself as a lackluster high school student whose mother criticized him for being a “loafer” (142). He describes his attitude toward schoolwork as “indifferent” (146), calling himself a “bum” who abused drugs (138) and who partied all weekend (165). He “settled on Occidental College mainly because I’d met a girl from Brentwood while she was vacationing in Hawaii with her family.” (146) That girl has never turned up.
There are reasons to doubt his testimony, however. He had fibbed about a “transfer program” between Occidental College and Columbia University, which he described and which has never existed. In fact, Obama was recruited to Occidental by Kraig King, Class of ’77, who ran recruitment for Occidental College in Hawaii at the time.
Obama, King explained, came from Punahou, a school that King described on the phone as “the best high school in Hawaii.” King, now an executive in Minnesota, recalled in a phone conversation with TheBlaze meeting “Barry Obama” in Hawaii. And though Obama was interested in basketball, King said he knew that Obama wasn’t going to be interested in playing for the team. Though King didn’t say so, it seems obvious Obama’s status as a black student from a top prep school would have helped his chances of admittance at Occidental even if he were a terrible student at Punahou.
Obama’s Role in Affirmative Action Protest on Campus
If Obama did benefit from affirmative action, it might certainly explain his interested in the policy while at Occidental. I wrote earlier this year about how the first political speech Barack Obama ever gave was at a rally against apartheid and in favor of affirmative action. Recently released photographs taken by Obama’s friend, Tom Grauman and published by Margot Mifflin, another Obama friend now at the New Yorker, confirm that the rally was about racial preferences.
Student newspaper records which I uncovered from Occidental (excerpted below) reveal that the protest wasn’t just about South Africa: it was also about increasing racial preferences for black and Latino students and faculty at Occidental–a history that has been utterly missing from Obama’s political record.
From top to bottom, the rally was planned, promoted, and performed by Obama and his friends, including Professor of English Eric Newhall, who served as the co-chair of the faculty committee on multicultural education, and who supported the campus’s affirmative action program with especial gusto. Newhall was a veteran of campus activism of the ‘60s and he, like many Occidental professors, continued his activism on campus as a professor. He was also a draft-dodger who had spent ten months in prison for draft evasion in 1968-1969 — a fact that gave him a certain gravitas that the more politically active of his students appreciated. While Newhall never taught Obama during his two years at Occidental, the two were close socially and played basketball together.
In an article written on February 20, 1981 in The Occidental, Professor Newhall worried that Occidental College would become especially white given that several minority administrators were leaving the college at the end of 1981, and that that would, he said, have a deleterious effect on student education. These departures included administrators Romelle Rowe and the aforementioned Yolanda Garcia, who had been tasked with recruiting more blacks and Hispanics to Occidental’s campus, respectively.
Obama himself was planning to join that exodus of minorities from the campus and likely filed out a transfer application to Columbia in January 1981.
Many of the campus’s student activist leaders graduated in 1981, but Obama still had two more years to go before he, too, would graduate. Could he have been motivated by the alleged lack of diversity on Occidental’s campus? He writes in “Dreams” of his desire to find his “community,” and later moved to Morningside Heights and Harlem. The diminishing numbers of minority faculty and the graduation of many of his minority friends at Occidental provided the final push, especially given Obama’s interest in racial issues.
At the rally, Professor Newhall argued that the decision of minorities to leave Occidental, as well as the number of minority students dropping out, was indicative of persistent bias on the part of Occidental students and administrators. From a February 1981 Occidental article:
“I’ve recently become aware that there is presently developing on this campus, an attitude of suspicion and intolerance towards certain groups,” [Eric Newhall, professor of English] announced, “mainly against blacks, Chicanos, Jews, and gays.” These prejudices he said, result from the frustration that many are feeling such problems as a spiraling inflation rate, high unemployment, and a high crime rate. Such conditions lead people to “search for scapegoats.” But he added “if we can’t stop harassment on this campus, we really don’t stand much of a chance of stopping it anywhere else.”
Newhall also said he realized that the school’s affirmative action program was in trouble and fretted that there might not be a single Chicano on the faculty or administration and made an explicit call for racial quotas:
[Newhall] admitted that “we all say we want affirmative action but we don’t want to pay what it apparantly [sic] will cost. Minorities with PhDs are in scarce supply, and thus will cost more to hire.” He said that he doesn’t like the idea of “someone else being paid more than I am for doing the same work I’m doing,” but that he liked even less having a “virtually all white faculty.”
Newhall then presented a plan designed to help increase minority enrollment. This spring, the Multicultural Education Committee, along with the admissions office, is planning to invite all accepted minority applicants to campus for a reception, in hopes that they can be convinced into choosing Occidental. I’m specifically asking the student body and the SCC to support our efforts, both emotionally and financially,” he said.
The rally continued with remarks about race from Latina freshman Becky Rivera [pictured here], who described Occidental as a “picture perfect campus. It’s quiet and beautiful, and no one has to worry about the students getting upset. Well, we’re upset.” She then accused the administration of “playing off one (minority) group against another,” and its plan is to “divide and conquer.” She warned that “a few of us ignorant minorities have got us some education,” and are “demanding answers and demanding action.” She added that “students are responsible for revolutions. Students have power. It starts on the campuses.”
(Obama was likely referring to Rivera when he mentioned his fictionalized “Regina” in his autobiography. There were only two women that spoke during that rally—Becky Rivera, a Latina girl, and Caroline Boss, a white member of the Democratic Socialist Alliance—and Obama seems to have compressed them both into one black student—Regina.)
The last to speak was Earl Chew, president of UJIMA, a black activist group on campus, and friend to Barack Obama. Chew called Occidental’s idea of a multicultural liberal arts institution “a farce,” and saw investment as “taking our tuition and investing it in the oppression of our ancestral people.”
Neither Chew nor Newhall were alone in linking the divestment issue with affirmative action efforts on campus. Shortly before the protests in February, “Members of the Student Coalition Against Apartheid” (which Obama had joined) and the “Third World Coalition,” among others, signed a letter (which I have reviewed) calling Occidental’s “commitment” to affirmative action “questionable”:
- It was overlooked to ask for any minority representation on the Dean of Faculty Search Committee. We find the position of the Dean of Faculty a viable one for the encouragement of Affirmative Action.
- Taking into consideration the geographic location of Occidental College, we would expect that Occidental would be more conducive to an ethnic and cultural atmosphere. Yet, we have only two full time Hispanic and only two full time Black faculty members.
- Over the past couple years, minority enrollment has increased, yet the attrition rate of minority students has also increased. The entering classes of 1970 and 1980 have had a decreasing enrollment of Black students.
It’s possible that this unsigned letter may very well have been written by Obama. As part of the campus protest movement, he describes himself as “drafting letters to the faculty” as part of his “larger role.” (“Dreams,” p. 160). The official history of Occidental mentioned the affirmative action protests as having taken place on February 18, 1981, writing:
Increased attention to minority rights, begun in the 1960s, also continued to command attention. Seeking greater minority representation, students and faculty members on February 18, 1981 held a rally in front of Coons Hall during a meeting of the trustees. A “Minority Caucus” sought more multicultural courses, to be taught by minority members. The faculty and administration, however, decided against tokenism that would admit students of marginal abilities to enlarge minority representation. Although aptitude tests would henceforth be weighted more lightly in the case of minority applicants, the college, as a small institution, did not possess the resources to service deeply-disadvantaged students.
The activists were ultimately effective in getting what they wanted passed:
A faculty committee on multicultural education, in 1982, became the committee on minority issues, consisting of faculty members, students, administrators, staff members, and alumni. This group sought to identify problems faced by campus ethnic minorities. An outgrowth of meetings of minority administrators and of a faculty caucus, the committee advised expansion of the minority presence on campus, although the college had already expanded its commitment to “Affirmative Action.” In 1984 President Gilman said about the effort:
The College has been engaged for 20 years in an effort to increase diversity among the student body and faculty. In the ‘60s we received three quarters of a million dollars to provide assistance to minority students. And we have been actively seeking more minorities since ’64. Because of this, the College has been strengthened and enriched. (See Andrew F. Rolle, “Occidental College: A Centennial History,” 1887-1987)
“I Got Into Politics at Occidental”
So what does this all mean? It’s clear Occidental had been in favor of affirmative action ever since the 1960s, and that could explain how it was that Obama, an admittedly poor student in high school, had been admitted to Occidental.
In addition, Obama shared Prof. Newhall’s politics and fought for those very racial preferences. And could it be that part of the reason he fought so hard for them was because he was a beneficiary?
“I got into politics at Occidental,” Obama told Occidental in a 2004 interview with Occidental magazine. “I made a conscious decision to go into public policy.” Now, it seems, we know that racial preferencing was one such policy that played a roll in his life And maybe that explains why, in Dreams, Obama describes the divestment issue itself as a “subconscious end run around issues closer to home.”
Editor’s note: You can see more pictures of Obama’s time at Occidental here.