When California voters approved Proposition 209 nearly a decade ago, banning most affirmative action by government agencies, college leaders were dismayed. They predicted that programs for minority students would be dismantled, with terrible consequences for the diversity of the student body.
In 2006, Michigan voters will consider a similar measure, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. A report being released today by the Center for the Education of Women warns that the measure would affect not only minority students, but female students as well.
The report reviews the impact of Proposition 209 and finds numerous examples of education programs for women that had to be eliminated or changed in focus: elementary and secondary school programs to help girls in math and science; summer programs to encourage girls in math and science; special efforts to recruit female undergraduates in math, science and engineering; and scholarships and fellowships for female students at public colleges and universities.
The report notes that while women have made significant progress at all levels of education compared to a few decades ago, they "still lag significantly behind men in physical sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics and business degrees."
Susan W. Kaufmann, associate director of Michigan's Center for the Education of Women, said that even in fields where women have achieved equity, "pipeline programs" have led to that progress, and would probably be at risk.
"I'd like people to understand that the impact of this initiative could be quite broad," Kaufmann said. "We know that much of the public discussion in California focused only on race and we wanted the public to understand that this could lead to significantly negative effects for women, too."
Jennifer Gratz, executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, the group leading the fight for the measure, said that some programs for women would need to change, but she said that wasn't a bad thing.
"When people talk about how there need to be special programs for women to go into math and science, which is a typical argument from the University of Michigan, I find that offensive. I took math and I didn't need any additional outreach. If there had been someone saying, 'There is this program for females in math,' that would have turned me off."
Gratz, who was a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging affirmative action practices at Michigan's law school, which reached the Supreme Court, said there is no doubt that some programs for female students are helpful. But she has a quick answer for how to preserve those programs if the initiative is approved: "If there is a program that is good for women, why not open it to men?"