Higher Ed's Election Day Showdowns

Three years after the University of Michigan won approval from the U.S. Supreme Court to use affirmative action (in some forms) in college admissions, voters in Michigan could strip the institution of the right to consider race when admitting students.

November 7, 2006

Three years after the University of Michigan won approval from the U.S. Supreme Court to use affirmative action (in some forms) in college admissions, voters in Michigan could strip the institution of the right to consider race when admitting students.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative would ban the state's public colleges and universities from giving preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity or gender in admissions, hiring and contracting. The impact on admissions is expected to be greatest on the University of Michigan, but many public colleges in the state have ambitious programs in hiring that could also be called into question. While universities as institutions have not taken stands on the measures, the leaders of higher ed in the state have made clear their opposition to the measure.

Polls indicate that the electorate in Michigan is fluid -- and women may determine the outcome. The Detroit News released a poll Monday night showing that support for the measure now trails opposition, 41 percent to 46 percent. Just a week ago, the poll found support for the measure ahead, 49 to 41 percent.

Women are behind the shift. In the latest poll, men would vote to bar affirmative action, 47 to 42 percent, but women would oppose the ban, with only 35 percent favoring it and 49 percent opposed. Ed Sarpolus, vice president of EPIC-MRA, the Michigan polling group that conducted the study for the newspaper said the results suggested that defenders of affirmative action had been politically wise in recent weeks to focus the debate on women. (EPIC-MRA is nonpartisan and has not taken a stand on the referendum.)

"The more you make this a black and white issue, support goes up" for banning affirmative action, he said. The opposite is true with regard to women.

Advertisements by One United Michigan, the coalition of groups defending affirmative action, do not focus on race in college admissions. The two advertisements featured on the group's Web page discuss allegations that deceptive tactics were used the to place the measure on the ballot, and look at the impact the measure could have on girls and women. The latter ad opens with the image of a white girl and talks about math and science programs for girls and scholarships for college being cut, and closes with an image of several generations of (white) women and the tag line that the measure would "hurt Michigan's mothers and daughters."

Despite the polling trends, Sarpolus warned that it would be wrong "to assume that this thing is going to fail." He said that in his survey, when voters were presented with concrete examples of how affirmative action is used, a majority of said that they would favor a ban. Sarpolus also noted that voters tend to be more secretive on ballot measures they perceive to involve race than on other measures, generally being reluctant to express their skepticism about affirmative action. Polling was inconclusive in California and Washington State on state referendums in 1996 and 1998, respectively, to bar affirmative action. But both measures passed comfortably -- California's with backing from 54 percent of voters and Washington State's with 59 percent.

"In the polling, we just don't know if people are being honest," Sarpolus said.

Beyond Michigan, many other votes today could have a major impact on higher ed. Ballot measures in other states could impose limits on state spending (which almost always end up placing severe limits on higher ed appropriations) or ban gay marriage (which in some cases could also ban domestic partner benefits that many public universities provide to gay couples). While those measures are generally being opposed by college leaders, they are backing bond measures in many states. In addition, scientists in Missouri are backing a measure to prevent the state from barring stem cell research that is legal under federal law.

Voters in 36 states will decide gubernatorial races and the winners will play a key role in determining public college budgets and who serves on college boards. Among the states where higher education has been a key issue: Arkansas, California, Iowa, Maryland and Wisconsin.

A shift in either house of Congress would result in new committee chairs and new agendas -- and quite possibly an entirely new version of legislation to renew the Higher Education Act that Congress has been working on for three years now. Should Democrats gain control of either house, it would become much less likely that Congress would enact legislation to carry out some of the recommendations of Education Secretary Margaret M. Spellings' Commission on the Future of Higher Education.

An Attack Ad to Enjoy

The 2006 elections have seen plenty of negative advertising and much commentary about whether the ads have hit new lows.

Even if you are sickened by some of the attack ads, we've got one that could provide some amusement. The University of Chicago Press this spring published In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. John G. Geer, the author, is a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, and he argues that "positive ads" tend to focus on personality, while "negative ads" serve a purpose because they are more likely to focus on policy questions.

When Jeremy D. Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, was asked to appear on a panel about Geer's book, Mayer couldn't help himself: He prepared an attack ad about Geer. The ad -- now featured on the blog of the Chicago press -- criticized Geer as a "flip flopper," questioned whether his CV omits secret details, and cited RateMyProfessors.com ratings as questioning his teaching ability. The charges -- all false -- allegedly come from "Academic Veterans for the Truth."

Geer said in an e-mail Monday that he found Mayer's ad funny: "If one defends negativity, one must be willing to be 'attacked.' "


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