SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A decade of debate over the place of race in academics flared anew Thursday as University of California regents formally opposed fellow regent Ward Connerly’s new campaign to ban collecting race data.

The decision was a signal defeat for Connerly who eight years ago led the fight to drop race in UC admissions and went on to successfully dismantle many public affirmative action programs statewide under Proposition 209.

Connerly’s new initiative could strike the “race box” from many government forms by forbidding state and local governments from classifying students, contractors or employees by race, ethnicity, color or national origin. The measure exempts data collected for medical research, descriptions of prisoners or criminal suspects and cases where the federal government requires that agencies report racial data. Connerly’s initiative is set to appear on the ballot for the next statewide election, which, barring a recall election against Gov. Grey Davis, should take place in March 2004.

UC President Richard Atkinson called on the UC Board of Regents to pass a resolution opposing the measure, which said Connerly’s initiative “could adversely affect the University’s ability to carry out its core mission.”

UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang, who was present at the meeting, joined Atkinson in opposing the measure.

“UCSB is committed to enrolling a student body that demonstrates high academic achievement and also encompasses the cultural, racial, geographic, economic and social diversity of California,” Yang said in a statement. “Enrollment statistics containing racial and ethnic data are a helpful and important tool – although by no means the only tool – used in measuring what we do to achieve that goal.”

Connerly and other supporters of his ballot measure say it is about “racial privacy” and is the next step after of Prop 209 and towards a colorblind society. Connerly told regents his new measure stems from his experience as someone who is part white, part American Indian and part black. He argues that identifying people by race is meaningless and a form of segregation.

Opponents say they need the information to conduct research and stop discrimination. They note that people have the option of leaving the box blank.

Regents debated for nearly two hours before taking the vote – 15 to 3 with one abstention – with some arguing that UC had no business weighing in on a political issue.

“The regents are not a debating society,” said Regent George Marcus, who said he was “baffled” that UC President Richard C. Atkinson asked for the resolution. Marcus tried unsuccessfully to postpone the vote indefinitely, but when that failed he did vote for the resolution.

On the other hand argued Jack O’Connell, a regent because he is superintendent of state schools: “This isn’t the time in my opinion when the UC regents can play ostrich.”

Among those voting “no”was Regent Peter Preuss. “I do not think this is the role of the regents, to be the guardian of research data,” he said.

About 100 students turned out for the vote, adding some audio punch to the scene as they clicked their fingers to applaud debaters’ points or hissed in disapproval.

The vote capped years of friction between Connerly and UC administrators over the issue of race.

Appointed in 1993, Connerly led a 14-10 vote of a then-Republican dominated board in 1995 to stop considering race and gender in UC admissions. The following year he oversaw passage of Proposition 209, which forbade considering race in public education, hiring and contracting.

Since then, the political makeup of the regents’ board has changed as a number of vacancies have been filled by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Nearly two years ago, the board rescinded their 1995 vote dropping affirmative action, but Proposition 209 still prevents use of race in admissions.

An independent poll in April found that 48 percent of Californians supported the measure. However, many said they were not aware of it until the pollsters told them.

Connerly defended his initiative, saying that when government classifies people, “the clear message is sent that our society believes it to be just and wise to divide us.”

But Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who also is a regent, said the initiative is a bad idea and disputed Connerly’s contention that the measure won’t affect collection of health data.

“We should clearly and loudly say that we are opposed to this initiative,” he said.

After the vote, Connerly issued a statement saying regents are out of touch with mainstream Californians.

“We may have lost with the regents,” he wrote, “but we’ll win at the ballot box next March.”

– Nexus staff writer Brendan Buhler also contributed to this report.