BERKELEY -- A satirical UC Berkeley bake sale meant to prompt debate about affirmative action did just that Tuesday, spurring several counter protests, spirited discussions and even a visit from Ward Connerly, the architect of the state law that bans race-based preferences.
The widely publicized sale by the Berkeley College Republicans brought a steady stream of curious students to Sproul Plaza during the four-hour event, where club members sold cookies and cupcakes for prices that varied based on the customer's race and gender. African-American students, for example, could buy a treat for 75 cents, while white men were charged $2 for the same item.
Although the discourse was civil, the event -- initially advertised by a Facebook posting that angered many -- had roiled the campus for several days. Student-government leaders held an emergency meeting Sunday to approve a resolution calling for better behavior by campus clubs.
Republican students toned down the Facebook message a few hours after it was posted, but it already had stoked anger.
"I'm frankly offended by the tactics they've chosen," student leader Joey Freeman said. "What they're doing is taking it to the next level in an inappropriate way."
The bake sale coincided with a nearby student-government effort to prompt students to call Gov. Jerry Brown, who is considering whether to sign a bill that would roll back some restrictions on using race and gender in college admissions. The practice was banned in 1996 by Proposition 209. Similar bills to reinstate race in college admissions have been vetoed by other governors or killed by the Legislature; a Brown spokesman declined to comment on pending legislation.
Debates and discussions broke out spontaneously during the sale. About 300 black-clad students staged a "die-in" at the plaza -- the site of many of the university's storied protests over the past 50 years -- and laid quietly on the ground to bring attention to diversity-related issues. Participants refused to answer questions about the protest.
The liveliest action surrounded the bake sale table, where Republicans holding signs urging Brown to veto SB 185 faced down opponents. Another small but vocal cluster of students dressed as wizards and encouraged passers-by to fight for the rights of the magically inclined.
Republicans attracted some political star power to their table. Connerly, a former University of California regent and Proposition 209's mastermind, debated affirmative action with students, administrators and others.
Conversations about affirmative action have become far less toxic over the past 15 years, Connerly said.
"Back in 1996, believe me, this would have been a much more hostile situation," he said.
Berkeley continues to struggle to attract and admit minority students, especially blacks. For the fall semester, the campus admitted 9,300 freshmen from California -- including just 332 black students and 1,530 Latinos, according to University of California figures. Asians were the largest group admitted, at 4,096, followed by whites at 2,914.
In 2010, the campus admitted 348 black freshmen from California and 1,404 Latinos, out of a total of 9,459 offered admission.
Aside from verbal jousting between Republicans and affirmative-action supporters, the day was peaceful. Some recent campus protests have ended in arrests, but police kept their distance Tuesday.
"I'm very proud of the students," said Harry Le Grande, vice chancellor for student affairs, as he surveyed the plaza from the steps of Sproul Hall. "This is much more constructive than the destruction we've seen."
Bake sale organizers and Republican club members defended the variable-pricing tactic and their sale, which has been used at previous events at Berkeley and elsewhere. They acknowledged, however, the original message might have clouded their intent.
"I think it was obvious that it was a satirical take on the bill on Gov. Brown's desk," said James Nagy, a fourth-year student and member of the GOP club. "But I also felt like we sort of oversimplified the message."
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattkrupnick.