Michigan credited with being a leader on racial diversity

Michigan credited with being a leader on racial diversity

CHAMPAIGN - The Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in two cases that could change the way universities seek to admit a racially diverse student body.

The cases before the court concern the admissions policies of the largest undergraduate college and the law school at the University of Michigan. Two white applicants challenged Michigan's race-conscious policies as unlawfully discriminating against them.

No matter what the court decides, Michigan has changed the focus of affirmative action debates, says an education professor at the University of Illinois.

?Michigan has emerged as a true leader in this area because it's provided a new viewpoint and redirected the debate,? said Denise Green, whose specialty is higher education with an emphasis on public policy. Her research looks at conflict within higher education, especially on issues of race and gender equity.

?Before Michigan came out with its position, higher education was floundering and was not able to clearly articulate why racial diversity was important,? she said. ?Now there is a rationale for it and it's grounded in research.?

Michigan argues diversity is important in achieving its goal of educating students to participate in a multiracial democracy and global economy. Michigan's argument is a narrow one that doesn't address past or present discrimination, Green said, and it diverges from what has been the central argument in the debate - the social justice argument that affirmative action is necessary to right past wrongs.

Even President George Bush, who opposes Michigan's use of race in admissions, stated his support for racial diversity in higher education.

?A college education should teach respect and understanding and goodwill. And these values are strengthened when students live and learn with people from many backgrounds,? he said in a January speech.

Michigan was also the first school to provide research data to back up its arguments about racial diversity, Green said.

The university presented expert testimony from scholars in its response to the lawsuits. Their research found our society is still as racially segregated as it was before the Civil Rights movement. It states that because race is a defining characteristic in our lives, it shapes our values, beliefs and perspectives.

The research supports the concept that education in a racially diverse setting can have a significant effect on the extent to which students live more racially integrated lives, and it results in a better education when students are confronted with people unlike themselves.

Green said it is also significant that Michigan administrators were able to bring on board major corporations, including General Motors, other universities and educators, the American Bar Association, and public figures, including congressmen and former President Gerald Ford, as supporters of their position. She said their research was a major factor in obtaining that support.

?One very critical aspect to Michigan's success is that they were willing to go beyond the campus community and share their position and to advocate for it,? Green said. ?That's one thing we do not see very often among higher ed institutions - institutions being very vocal and very public and advocating on issues of race, and encouraging dialogue and discussion on the issue. They saw this as a very important issue they had to take to the public and their constituents.?

Green noted that the University of Michigan has long been a strong advocate of affirmative action. Its ?Michigan Mandate,? begun in the late 1980s, was a plan to increase the racial diversity of the faculty.

She said the university is also highly ranked for the number of minority students it graduates.

Green began studying Michigan's affirmative action policies before the lawsuits were filed, while she was a doctoral student there.

?Given my interest in public policy and given what was going on around the country and this anti-affirmative action mood, I thought other institutions must be taking all of this into account to re-examine their own policies,? Green said.

After the lawsuits against Michigan were filed, Green said she continued with her research to document how Michigan officials handled the issue.

She said the next step for universities is to develop ways to maintain diversity beyond ?percent plans,? under which a fixed percentage of graduating high school students in the state is guaranteed admission to a university in the state system.

?Ultimately, this is a social conflict around race and who should have the privilege of attending these institutions,? Green said. ?There are only a few slots, and the numbers tell us the bulk of students who are admitted to these schools are white. Affirmative action allows students of color who are well-qualified to be reviewed and to be admitted.?

You can reach Jodi Heckel at (217) 782-2216 or via e-mail at jheckel@news-gazette.com.

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