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At a bicentennial colloquium kicking off a yearlong celebration of the University of Michigan’s history Monday morning, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called out the University’s historically low enrollment of African-American and minority students.
“We are making large improvements towards a kind of equality but we are still far from it,” she said. “When you look at the number of African Americans at the University of Michigan, there’s a real problem there.”
As of October 2016, just under 5 percent of students are African American, according to the University Registrar.
A dialogue between Sotomayor and German Justice Susanne Baer, moderated by journalist Michele Norris, packed Hill Auditorium with more than 1,000 students, faculty and community members. The event— the first of three Presidential Bicentennial Colloquia sponsored by the University Bicentennial Committee—focused on diversity in the University community and how students should respond to contrasting viewpoints.
Looking to the future, Sotomayor and Baer hypothesized about what universities will look like in the years to come. Sotomayor cited the low number of African American students at the University when discussing the future of university communities. This, Sotomayor said, is indicative of a lack of diversity on campus.
“I am going to be politically correct,” Sotomayor said. “It’s going to look a lot like Michigan but with even greater diversity. I don’t think we can get there without addressing it because it is an ideal to be a color-blind society.”
Baer stressed classism as the largest issue affecting the future of universities, encompassing other factors such as ethnicity or gender. The University released a 49-part Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan last October aiming to diversify students’ race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, but low-income students are still widely underrepresented, according to a report released last month.
“The moral of class manifests itself differently and is located within different segments of the population,” Baer said. “Money matters but shouldn’t matter as much when it comes to education.”
The panelists shared their experiences of “firsts”: Sotomayor received her law degree from Yale University 1979 and was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by former President Barack Obama in 2009 as the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court. Baer, a University law alum, is currently serving a 12-year term as a justice of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court. She is the first lesbian woman to serve on Germany’s high court.
Moderator Michele Norris has written for ABC News, The Washington Post and NPR and currently serves on the board of the University’s Knight-Wallace Fellowships program.
Before the conversation began, Regent Mark Bernstein (D) presented Sotomayor with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree — Norris and Baer received their honorary doctorates from the University in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Bernstein said Sotomayor’s dedication to her work and her promotion of equal rights makes her a true Wolverine.
“Sonia Sotomayor’s keen legal mind and a commitment to fairness and social justice and public service inspires students, Hispanics, women, all those to work to create a better, more equitable world,” Bernstein said.
In response to her new degree, Sotomayor gave the crowd a short and powerful, “Go Blue.”
Sotomayor, Baer and Norris each also spoke about the importance of compromise in communities today. With Norris guiding the discussion, Sotomayor said she must rely on dialogue to execute her duties.
“As judges, I think we are often put in a situation where we’re forced into community,” Sotomayor said. “We … have to decide some of the most complex questions that this society is facing and in America, we can dissent and we can disagree, but we have to reach a decision.”
The University community has experienced many instances of conflict and charges of lack of dialogue between students of opposing viewpoints this school year, including the posting of racially charged fliers in September and ongoing protests of the Trump administration. With President Trump’s Supreme Court nomination being announced Tuesday, Baer said effective community members recognize, and prioritize, their opposition.
“This community is built on the willingness to compromise,” Baer said. “It’s about being fair … being forceful with your arguments, but yet being willing to respect the other as a legitimate voice, from another world maybe but still legitimate.”
Sotomayor and Baer reflected on their experiences at universities and how they have adjusted to their current judicial positions. Norris noted Sotomayor was very shy when she first entered the collegiate sphere. Sotomayor said throwing oneself into the unfamiliar is the best way to thrive in university and beyond.
“I live a life now where I do a lot of talking — hence why I’m here — but for a good part of my life, I did a lot of listening and a lot of observing,” Sotomayor said. “I think everyone needs to grow and needs the trauma of putting yourself in situations that make you uncomfortable because when you’re comfortable, you just don’t change.”
Baer said, at the University, she was afraid of being called on. Speaking from her own experience as coming from another country and not being out as a homosexual woman, she said if an individual has to run away from issues, they should always chase new opportunities instead of hiding.
“For me to have those two challenges in my life, one super private that no one talked about and the other, being an international student and everyone knows it, what’s difficult to hear yet again is, if I have the tendency to run away, it’s running to a more comfortable place where maybe you can start again,” Baer said. “Never leave the situation. Never leave the opportunity but create your next opportunity and start again.”
As Norris began reading questions from University students, Sotomayor and Baer got out of their seats, answered them among the students on stage and in the crowd, and greeted students and faculty. In response to a question about how her social identity is reflected in her work and how she works with her coworkers with her identity in mind, Sotomayor said she continues to be vocal and refuses to allow people’s view of her to get in the way.
“For most things I think are important, I say them and I say them because even if they don’t win in a particular case, I said them with a thought process of solution,” Sotomayor said. “I may not win tomorrow but down the line … the voices have been heard.
A student in the audience asked Baer how public opinion intersects with her job as a justice. Baer responded with how justices should embrace public opinion in order to have a deeper understanding of the people they are representing.
“If you’re acting with these people and start a discussion with what they expect from you, you come into much richer waters,” she said. “You can start a conversation.”
LSA junior Stephen Mitchell said in contrast to what the public has been seeing from the Trump administration in terms of dialogue, Sotomayor and Baer showed the crowd how compromise will work in the years to come.
“Hearing a different story of what’s going on in the world and the direction we’re headed as a university community too, I think that it’s a really empowering feeling,” Mitchell said.
Art & Design freshman Gabriella Pascual said the justices’ ideals aligned with those of the students attending today.
“Given that these people were agreeable toward the general outlook of the University, I think it helped incite a lot of inspiration and encouragement to go into this future with an optimistic outlook,” Pascual said. “It reminded me of why I’m here and what I’m looking to pursue in the legal force.”
Both guests joined students from the School of Music, Theater and Dance in the evening for a series of performances and conversations on the importance of the arts to social justice.