The View From Ground Zero

November 9, 2006

At the University of Michigan, which is once again ground zero for affirmative action in higher education, hundreds of students huddled closely together on the green crossroads of campus known as the "Diag" Wednesday to hear President Mary Sue Coleman tell them where the institution might go from here.

Many students’ faces were shadowed by a mix of sadness and shock as they gathered just three years after the university successfully defended the use of racial preferences in admissions in a lawsuit that traveled all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The sense of frustration in the autumn air was tangible: A campus that was once the setting for a historic victory for affirmative action had overnight become the site of a highly visible defeat.

This time around, it was the voters who made the call, not the courts. Michigan residents had gone to the polls Tuesday and a sizable majority of them (58 percent, to be exact) had said that the principle the university spent $10 million successfully defending – that preferences granted on the basis of race or gender represent wise and equitable public policy – shouldn’t have a place in the public sphere after all.

“If November 7 was the day that Proposal 2 passed, then November 8 is the day we pledge to remain unified in our fight for diversity,” Coleman told a crowd that burst into loud applause. Meanwhile, in the back of the throng, a handful of students in support of the ballot measure to ban the use of racial or gender preferences in public life held their signs just a little bit higher. The action seemed like a reminder that their position reflects that of the state’s majority, and that if the debate were simple, the university probably wouldn’t be here, perhaps poised again to make a leap of faith, to challenge the legality of the initiative, while simultaneously having to find ways to enhance diversity on campus other than those on which it has come to rely.

The vast majority of students interviewed Wednesday said they opposed a ban on affirmative action programs. Many students who opposed the ban vowed that they would fight on, while those in support noted that the voters had spoken. Those on campus who favor the ban say they are advocating fairness and equity as consistently as their opponents call that argument deceptive.

Yet, there was some common ground that appeared even during the contentious, but civilized, debates that occurred immediately following Coleman’s speech. Now, students consistently said, is a time to find new methods to enhance diversity. The objective was a statement echoed even by many of those students who never would advocate for an "out with the old" mentality they say the success of the initiative endorsed.

“This greatly affects how we think about education, how we think about access issues,” said Brett Griffith, a white, first-year doctoral student in English and education who has taught college-aged students for the past seven years. “I don’t think doing away with it is the answer, but we do need a better system.”

“We need greater diversity in higher education. Sociopolitical movements have always thrived under pressure and oppression and it may be that we come up with a better system,” said Griffith, who is studying access issues in higher education.

“I refuse to allow the passing of the bill to get me down,” said Devin Phoenix, a second-year black student in the political science and public policy Ph.D. program. “Right now, we need to go on the offensive, thinking of new ways to maintain diversity without overstepping the bounds of the law.”

Such reactions are what supporters of the initiative say they intended: to force public institutions to find new ways of embracing diversity in background, beyond skin color.

Affirmative action programs based on race and gender obscure the underlying inequities in society, said Andrew Gaber, a white sophomore. Gaber said he’d like programs to focus on socioeconomic background rather than color, and for society to focus its energies on solving structural problems plaguing public school systems and the inner cities. “When you’re giving preferential treatment on the basis of race, it’s not solving these problems,” Gaber said. “It’s just furthering social inequities.”

Charlie Larson, a white freshman sporting an “I voted” sticker, offered a similar view in an interview before Coleman's speech. “I think any form of discrimination is wrong, whatever the reason. I think we should work toward a culture of a colorblind society, rather than perpetuate a culture of inequality.”

But several students interviewed were angry about what they saw as a deceptive campaign on the part of supporters of the ballot measure -- termed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative -- to suggest that the measure was about ensuring equality. “It’s a hard issue to understand, why affirmative action helps promote fairness,” said Alexander Sutton, a second-year black student pursuing a master’s in business. Sutton said that he thinks many of the initiative’s white supporters cannot understand the institutionalized discrimination people of color face. “If they could trade places with me, would they?” he asked. “Would they really?”

Kevin Szawala, a white senior, said he is especially concerned about the future of campus programs specifically designed for minority groups. “Mary Sue Coleman said she wants to embrace diversity, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen now,” said Szawala, who graduated from an all-white high school and said he has learned a tremendous amount from exposure to the university’s diverse student body, faculty and staff.

Ultimately, it’s unclear what new programs or efforts might replace the current structure Michigan uses to build diversity. A female engineering student who asked not to be named complained that while affirmative action is “a flawed, flawed system,” it was a mistake to make affirmative action based on race or sex-based preferences illegal without having a clear alternative in place.   

In fact, when asked what programs the university might adopt to embrace diversity in the event a legal challenge to the initiative fails, Coleman said she didn’t want to “prejudge” the legal landscape and assume failure.

But she praised the university’s holistic admissions review process and said the University of Michigan would reach out to its alumni and enlist them in helping to recruit diverse, talented students. To the students gathered on all four quadrants of the Diag Wednesday she said this: “We will find ways to overcome the handcuffs that Proposal 2 attempts to place on our reach for greater diversity.”

The vast majority of students on the Diag applauded, eager to help the university escape the confines of the new law. Others didn’t have any free hands to do so. They were, after all, holding up signs advertising Proposal 2 as a measure meant not to bind, but to free.

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