Ever Wonder How Obama Got into Occidental College? We May Have Found the Answer.
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, 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 Hammit.
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.
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.
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). 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 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,” Sometimes blacks made it into the final consideration simply because they were black 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,”
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 “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.” 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; 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.
More black and Chicano students and professors also meant more black and Chicano courses. 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,” Unlike other school recruitments, this one was led by two activist organizations on campus, MeCha for Latinos and UJIMA, for blacks. 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. 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,” 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 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.
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. 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. The first political speech Barack Obama ever gave was at a rally against apartheid and in favor of affirmative action.
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. 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. The two were close socially and played basketball together, 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.
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, 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. 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.
She then accused the administration of “playing off one (minority) group against another,” and its plan is to “divide and conquer.” (SOUND FAMILIAR TO ANYONE).
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.” 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:
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. In the ‘60s we received three quarters of a million dollars to provide assistance to minority students.
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.”
Souirce-those listed above and charles Johnson, blaze