After the Vote, Moving On
Michigan's abolition of affirmative action doesn't end colleges' responsibility to promote diversity; it only changes the tactics, writes Russell Olwell.
The passage of the anti-affirmative action ballot Proposition 2 hit hard in Michigan for those who care about access to college or campus diversity. A Detroit teacher related to me what an African-American high school student told him about the results of the ballot measure’s passage. The academically talented student picked up a basketball and said that he had better start to practice, as sports were the only opportunity left for kids like him. The student was making a joke, but the point of the story remains – for the next generation of students, Proposition 2 will shape their hopes about college, their sense of who they can be. Though the measure may not keep students like the one above from being admitted to a top school, it could well keep him from applying, or even aspiring to attend a top school.
In the wake of attacks on affirmative action, students may believe that they cannot attend college, when most colleges and universities offer tremendous access to a wide range of students. Colleges and universities will need to make sure that students have the correct information about college standards and admission requirements. Students need to understand that standardized tests are only part of the system, and that students with a wide range of test scores can be successful in postsecondary education.
Colleges and universities need to reach out to students to bring a message of hope -- a college education is not out of reach, and that our colleges and universities remain committed to educating a diverse student population. Colleges and universities, if they work together, could use the assault on affirmative action as an opportunity to work together to better engage with the K-12 community. This work is difficult, long-term, labor intensive, frustrating and counter-cultural. Universities have traditionally had a “build it and they will come philosophy,” in which they build buildings, print application forms and expect a class of students to show up.
Higher education’s focus must change from admissions policies to outreach, with greater attention to college preparation. Programs such as Upward Bound and Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) provide models for what can be done, but these need to be strengthened, energized, and made central to the mission of colleges and universities. Nothing in Proposition 2 prevents universities from targeting schools districts across the state that are not now sending their students to college, and working with those schools to improve their curriculums and their college-going rates. The schools that need this help range from urban districts like Detroit, Flint and Lansing, to many small struggling rural districts, to districts with large populations of Native Americans, Arab-Americans or Latinos, groups of students who have been ignored in the debate over Proposition 2.
In California, Proposition 209 led to a drastic decline in minority enrollments in the flagship University of California institutions, but it has energized the California State University System, which has become the leader in school outreach, in college preparation and awareness, and in minority student enrollments. The passage of Proposition 209 has made both the University of California and Cal State system far more interested and involved in high school curriculum, and both systems have become far more explicit with students and high schools about the knowledge and skills that are prerequisites to college success.
Regional universities, long the second tier of the hierarchy, may now become the most important part of the system for diversity. The reality is that affirmative action in admissions is a far less important issue once you leave state flagships like the University of Michigan. Minority students who do not get in there because of this change would be welcomed, admitted, and successful at institutions all over the state. This shift would bring these regional universities the “critical mass” of diversity that the University of Michigan argued was so important for campus climate, and revitalize regional universities' mission of providing access to underrepresented students.
If universities want a more diverse student body, business as usual will not work anymore. Universities and colleges need to take a role in building, encouraging, locating and recruiting their future students, starting now. The passage of Proposition 2 presents a moral challenge to colleges and universities to leave the ivory tower and to work for a better future for the students that need it most.
If colleges and universities are going to do this kind of work, engagement with the K-12 system needs to go to the top of the university’s agenda. Most of the programs at colleges and universities that work with schools and schoolchildren can be found in some of the most marginal spaces imaginable, including leaky basements, off-campus sites, and in other cities entirely. They are found in virtually every unit except Academic Affairs, and are rarely run by faculty members. These valuable programs, long neglected by their institutions, need recognition, energy, clout and involvement from the top.
For faculty, substantial involvement in elementary and high schools has never had the rewards of research, even for faculty in education schools. If universities and colleges were to revitalize this role, it would take a cultural shift, in which faculty would be expected to engage with their colleagues in the K-12 system, as well as students on a regular basis.
The passage of Proposition 2 in Michigan provided higher education across the nation with a very bad night. It showed that no matter what level of corporate and higher education support exists for affirmative action programs, voters can overwhelmingly reject this based on a few attack ads.
It is now the morning after that bad night. Time to get to work.
Russell Olwell is associate professor of history at Eastern Michigan University.
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