She was first admitted to UC Berkeley on a scholarship from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Living off of 37 dollars a month and holding down several jobs, she pursued a premedical track of study for three years before the chronic health complications she suffered came to a head.
This is the story of Elsie Mae Gardner Ricklefs, a Native American student who was accepted to UC Berkeley in 1938. She was blinded by a tumorous growth in her brain, which resulted in academic deficiencies, leading to her dismissal.
Nineteen years later, after working at remote elementary schools in underserved areas and heading the Hoopa Indian Tribal Council, Ricklefs decided to seek readmission into UC Berkeley to renew her teaching certification from Humboldt State University — as Humboldt would not grant her certification in light of of her previous academic record.
“(She) is anxious to prove that the academic record she made twenty years ago, under very difficult personal conditions, is not indicative of of her ability.”
— Clark Kerr
The first time she submitted her application through traditional channels, she was rejected. Not one to be deterred, she turned to the UC Office of the President. Then-president of the UC system Clark Kerr decided to help Ricklefs’ appeal to then-chancellor Edward Strong.
“She is a very serious, personable individual,” Kerr wrote in his memorandum to Strong. “(She) is anxious to prove that the academic record she made twenty years ago, under very difficult personal conditions, is not indicative of of her ability.”
Despite the endorsement, Ricklefs’ petition was rejected again. According to Strong, she was unqualified because of a lack of an acceptable academic performance as a UC Berkeley undergraduate.
It’s not difficult to imagine Ricklefs’ challenges as one of the only Native American female students on campus pursuing a degree in a largely male-dominated field. With the upcoming celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I wanted to look through previous admission policies for indigenous students at the university. I stumbled upon her story on accident while briefing through manila folders from the 200-box collection that make up the Records of the Office of the Chancellor archives. Folded between letters of complaints from students proclaiming their suitability for the programs they were rejected from, both Ricklefs’ narrative and the official purple letterhead that told it stood out.
“The report was damning — UC Berkeley was almost entirely homogeneous, with about 90 percent of its students being white and middle- or upper-class.”
Digging further, I could not find reports of student body ethnicity in official records until 1966. Students were categorized in great detail based on their major, year and geographic origin until 1964, when the state legislature ratified the Master Plan for Higher Education, limiting automatic university admissions from the top 15 percent of every graduating class to the top 12.5 percent. The subsequent increase in exclusivity, which designated the UC consortium as one of the most selective public institutions in the country, prompted a survey of student body diversity, in conjunction with the Civil Rights Movement. The report was damning — UC Berkeley was almost entirely homogeneous, with about 90 percent of its students being white and middle- or upper-class.
After the ethnic surveys of 1966 and 1968, the university sought to improve upon the representation of students with the establishment of the Educational Opportunity Program, which would increase opportunities for students of lower-income families. The program, however, which is still in existence today, did not exclusively serve students from minority backgrounds.
Additionally, the UC Regents green-lit a proposal to increase the percentage of students admitted because of special circumstances from 2-4 percent, though the latter was, as admits a 1985 university report on admissions policies, perhaps more motivated by a need for more student-athletes.
After the adoption of these policies, the subsequent decade saw very few changes to the composition of the campus. In the school year of 1975-76, UC Berkeley awarded 15 bachelor’s and 6 master’s degrees to “American Indian” students, 0.002 percent of the total number of degrees conferred. In 1973, there were 127 Native students in attendance, compared to a sprawling student population totaling more than 30,000.
Starting in 1981, the UC consortium experienced an explosion of applications. From 1981 to 1984, the number of applications received by UC Berkeley jumped from 9,006 to 12,381, a 30 percent increase that forced the university to overhaul its admissions regulations. Perhaps consequently, these years saw the birth of UC Berkeley’s affirmative action policies, which increased the percentage of Native American students from 0.3 of the student body in 1981 to 1.8 in 1988.
The policies manifested in a three-tier model divided based on academic performance and supplemented by factors such as economic background, quality of essays submitted, Californian residency, high school academic achievements and special talents or backgrounds in fields that would allow them to enrich the university environment. The school also created a “Special Action” category, in which students of significantly disadvantaged backgrounds or extraneous circumstances can be admitted, making up approximately 6 percent of the incoming class. In 1985, UC Berkeley also began to offer spring admission, which allowed the university to admit more disadvantaged students while assisting in their transition to college life.
“The affirmative action policies, which varied from year to year, have led to significant opposition and controversy from both applicants and students already attending the university.”
The affirmative action policies, which varied from year to year, have led to significant opposition and controversy from both applicants and students already attending the university. Even after the implementation of these policies, the university ran up against limitations when attempting to reach out to indigenous students. Many Native Californians have either been unable to attend or to graduate from high school, resulting in their automatic exclusion from the programs.
The Early Academic Outreach Program, launched in 1976, attempted to bridge the gap and encourage applications by supplying additional academic services to high schools. But even then, the impact of the initiative for Native American students was limited to the northern Alameda County Area.
After arriving at UC Berkeley, student long-term success has also been called into question. An ASUC-sponsored report in 1989, “A Student Perspective on Admissions,” pointed to the “revolving door” phenomenon perpetuated by a high admissions rate in conjunction with a low graduation rate. The number for Native American students hovered about 41 percent for special action admits and 65 percent for regular admits between 1982 and 1984, and it dropped to 21.4 percent by 1985 regarding students who chose to stay all four years.
“Although further research may unearth a more complete picture, both regarding the history of policies as well as the number of students it served, the time I spent in the Bancroft Library archives has made me realize just how similar the past resembles the present.”
In 1996, affirmative action was outlawed by the state legislature in the controversial Proposition 209. Since then, the admissions rates for Native American students have plummeted from near 70 percent to about 20 percent of all applicants. In 2013, 12 indigenous scholars received their bachelor’s degrees from UC Berkeley.
Although further research may unearth a more complete picture, both regarding the history of policies as well as the number of students it served, the time I spent in the Bancroft Library archives has made me realize just how similar the past resembles the present.
Even as campus life continues to be enriched by Native American presence with support from programs such as the Native American Theme Program and the Native American Student Development Center, the current Native American rates of admission harkens back to a less inclusive past, in which students’ voices are unheard and unsupported, their backgrounds buried under those same unfeeling manila folders — now in digitized forms — that held Ricklefs’ story.