Losing Equity: Remembering UCLA's Winston Doby

Winston Doby | Photo: UCLA
Winston Doby | Photo: UCLA

Winston Doby died a week ago. He was career UCLA man--student, alum, staffer--whose was best known for being Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs for twenty years, between 1981 and 2001. But for generations of black Bruins like myself, he was the point man for issues of educational justice and equal access at the university and the UC system at large, a position that became increasingly difficult after Prop 209 scuttled affirmative action in university admissions in 1996.

But Doby--or simply Winston, as he was known by all--found ways to make access happen. That had always been his job, even when affirmative action was in full force. The fact is that the black student population at UCLA has always been pretty paltry, with the paltriness always only a matter of degree. Doby's enduring dream was that we retire paltry for good.

Not surprisingly, black admissions dropped off dramatically after '96 when voters chose to end affirmative action measures in public sector universities and state contracting. By that point UCLA was swiftly becoming one of the most selective universities in the country, and Doby, whose three degrees included one in math, could see what was coming. But it had brewing well before 1996. In the 1980s, after UC instituted a new applications procedure that allowed students to apply to as many campuses as they wanted, UCLA began overloading on qualified applicants. For the first time in its history, it didn't have enough spots for the top 12% of students in the state who qualified to attend. Thus began the era of "hyper qualifying," an admissions elitism in which blacks have been the biggest losers.

Doby was undaunted, or he appeared to be. After finally retiring from the UC system in 2006, he was promptly drafted back into action that year after UCLA revealed that its black freshman class had fallen to under 100, a twenty-five year low. The new crisis was yet another opportunity for Doby. Among other things, he became the philosophical and fundraising force behind the Legacy Scholarship Program, a program of the UCLA Black Alumnni Assn. (full disclosure: I'm on the UBAA board.) The program seeks to to attract top-tier black students to UCLA as well as provide money and ongoing support for black freshman who, despite enjoying better numbers since '06, remain somewhat isolated at a campus of over 30,000. Let's just say the numbers are still paltry.

Up to the end of his long fight against cancer, Winston was tireless. Time and again he extended himself for the cause of the Legacy Scholarship program, one of many educational programs for young African Americans in L.A. that he either co-founded or championed (another was Young Black Scholars, a program for high school students; still another was a black male mentoring program at Watts Learning Center, a charter school).

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Winston said a long time ago that it was clear that in order for blacks to maintain a presence at UCLA--or at any competitive institution--they had to perform better academically before they even got there. That sounds self-evident, but the fact is, it hasn't been happening for black students as a group. Winston was determined to change the "pipeline" problem, but he knew change wouldn't happen overnight. He was patient. He always took the long view.

But his pragmatism didn't disturb his fundamental idealism, and part of that idealism was that UCLA was a public institution that had a duty to serve the educational needs and aspirations of black residents as fully as it served everyone else's. "I hope that when people think of me," Doby told an interviewer in 2002, "they will remember me as one who remained committed to the campus's quest for greatness and committed to ensuring that this quest for greatness included a commitment to equity and justice." Indeed we will.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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