Under the policy change, the university will stop using "race, religion, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin" as criteria in its admission decisions beginning on 1 January 1997, and in hiring and contracting decisions beginning on 1 January next year.
The approval of the measure - on a 14-10 vote of the university's governing board of regents on Thursday - is likely to throw the education system into chaos and have a significant impact on future enrolments. It also gives opponents of minority-hiring programmes around the country a boost. The Republican-controlled Congress has initiated efforts to roll back federal programmes created in the 1970s to overcome discrimination experienced by minorities and women in education and jobs.
The California decision came after 12 hours of impassioned discussion, a bomb scare and frequent interruptions from opposition groups, and despite the objections of the university's president, vice-presidents, faculty and student leadership. President Bill Clinton, too, made a strong defence of the preferential-treatment programme on Wednesday.
Questions of academic freedom were overshadowed by presidential politics in the state, where Governor Pete Wilson has made the repeal of affirmative action part of his Republican presidential campaign platform.
"We cannot tolerate university policies or practices that violate fundamental fairness, trampling individual rights to create and give preference to group rights," the governor said. In setting the terms for debate at the start of the meeting, he asked: "Are we going to treat all Californians equally and fairly? Or are we going to continue to divide Californians by race?"
The Rev Jesse Jackson, a potential independent or Democratic presidential candidate, led opposition to the change, urging the regents not to drop race-based admissions or hiring at the university's nine campuses. "The consequence of going backwards is the loss of hope, the furthering of despair, the hardening of cynicism we can ill afford," he said in a 45-minute address.
Mr Jackson, who arrived in loose clothes in anticipation of provoking his own arrest if the proposal should pass, disrupted the meeting just before the vote and later led 200 protesters chanting "No justice, no peace," on a short march before 100 people sat down in the middle of an intersection. "July 20 will live a long time in California history," he said. "What we are seeing here tonight is a blatant act of racism."
The unravelling of affirmative action in California, the state which has been a leader in the battle for racial equality since the civil rights movement began, also marks a sea change in attitudes in America's most ethnically diverse region.
"It means the beginning of the end of racial preferences," Governor Wilson said after the decision. "We believe that students at the University of California should achieve distinction and will achieve distinction, without the use of the kind of preferences that have been in place.''
The meeting at the Laurel Heights campus attracted 1,000 students and demonstrators. Police in riot gear ringed the building where the meeting was held and closed off streets around the campus. Several people were arrested on civil disobedience charges, including a handful of black ministers.
Throughout the day, students and other activists voiced their opposition. "The problem starts when you are born," Dawn Fraser, a black student at UCLA, said. "The schools in the inner cities don't have the resources of those in the suburbs. We have been misrepresented, period.''
To some, the realities of being a member of a minority in a racially fractured society smacked of a darker period still. "I come from slavery; it's nothing to me to be demeaned," Dorothy King, a black activist, said. "If there aren't guidelines, it will continue to be run by white men. Instead of working at McDonald's for a minimum wage, the programme encourages us to go on to higher education. It is a foot in the door.''
After women, African-Americans have traditionally benefited the most from the programme, which is estimated to cost $3bn (pounds 2bn) a year to maintain.
Stacy Han, a student of Japanese origin, questioned why such an emotive issue had drawn comparatively few protesters. "There were supposed to be 2,000 demonstrators," she said. "But a lot of people are demoralised by Wilson's agenda to build more prisons and fewer schools.''
Of the 18 appointed regents on the 26-member board, 17 have been appointed by Republican governors - five by Mr Wilson. The proposal to scrap the ''reverse discrimination'' programme was put forward by Ward Connerly, a black regent appointed by Mr Wilson, who argued that the admissions policy lowered academic standards. He said he was interested in "raising the level of maturity in the demographic process''.
According to an admissions report, 40 per cent of the 162,000 students at the University of California are Asian, 34 per cent white, 6 per cent black and the rest Hispanic and other minorities. California as a whole is 67 per cent white, 20 per cent Hispanic, 7.5 per cent black and 5.5 per cent Asian.
Calculations based on high-school exam results suggest that if college entrance were based purely on merit, the percentage of Asian students at the university would climb to 60 per cent. "They have capped and raised the standards of admission for Asians; they do not want affirmative action," Robert Lau, an Asian economist at UC Berkeley, said. "It's pure hypocrisy. Asians are discriminated against the most."
A non-preferential admissions policy could have dire financial implications for the university, which is struggling in the face of funding cuts, and result in a significant increase in the number of low-income students. Analysts have concluded that with the current make-up it takes the revenue of three adult taxpayers to subsidise each student at UC.
Opponents scoffed at Governor Wilson's characterisation of the vote as a courageous step forward. "He said this was a historic day," Lieutenant Governor Grey Davis, a Democrat, said. "It is a historic day, but Pearl Harbor was a historic day that we don't look back on with any pride.''Reuse content