Following Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s and German Justice Susanne Baer’s bicentennial colloquium discussion on Monday, three University of Michigan faculty members hosted a panel discussing the justices’ remarks and the issues of diversity and representation on campus in the Michigan League Ballroom on Thursday afternoon. About 75 students, faculty and Ann Arbor residents attended the event.
Presidential Bicentennial Prof. Martha Jones gave the opening remarks at Monday’s colloquium.
The colloquium largely focused the University’s lack of diversity. On Monday, Sotomayor referenced the low number of African-American students at the University. As of October 2016, less than 5 percent of students at the University are African American.
“We are making large improvements towards a kind of equality but we are still far from it,” Sotomayor said. “When you look at the number of African Americans at the University of Michigan, there’s a real problem there.”
Jones said the differences between admitting students based on merit, excellence or diversity must be examined when discussing a diverse campus.
“Merit has been largely challenged and discredited as the way forward,” she said. “Excellence is alive and well here and I think there’s a tension between excellence and diversity that I think we can talk a lot about … To recognize, in the third century, the ways in which our commitment and our definitions of excellence hamper how we construct our objectives and our purpose of diversity.”
In his opening statements, Terrence McDonald, history professor and chair of the President’s Advisory Committee on University History, thought back on the history of the University and its past forms of discrimination toward minorities, including forced segregation and the many years before women and minorities could attend the University. He also addressed the University’s ban on race- and gender-based affirmative action in college admissions and how we respond to this history in terms of diversity.
“We have two legacies from the past of the University,” he said. “One is the revolutionary commitment to equal access and equality. The other is a practical history of obstacles … Our history is both one of privilege and pain and one of understanding and, on that basis, change can happen. We can move forward.”
Addressing Sotomayor’s denouncement of the low number of African Americans on campus, Associate English Prof. Ruby Tapia said 5 percent is too low compared to the 14.2 percent of Michigan residents who are African American. However, she noted the University has programs in place that are working to increase this statistic.
“The University administration has been clear about its commitment to remedy the significant challenges in regards to diversity, equity and inclusion,” she said. “Our participation in the American Count Initiative, … the HAIL Scholarship, Wolverine Pathways and the rigorously researched Poverty Solutions program are all testimonies to an important institutional commitment to equity and inclusion.”
Tapia went on to denounce President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders and appointments, including the travel ban from multiple predominately Muslim countries, the order to complete the Dakota Access Pipeline and the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Both Tapia and Jones diverged from their syllabi this week in response to the president’s recent orders and actions.
“All of these things, and many, many more, are producing concern, demoralization and fear of our nation,” Tapia said. “They are clearly producing consequential resistance as well.”
She went on to cite the many protests on campus and across the nation in response to the president’s executive orders.
After the statements from the panelists, LSA junior Stephen Mitchell asked the professors about their opinions on the student riots on the University of California-Berkeley campus Wednesday night. The protests broke out when right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak on campus. Students started fires and threw objects at university buildings as an act of protesting the speech.
Trump tweeted a threat of rescinding federal funding to UC Berkeley on the grounds that not allowing Yiannopoulos to speak because of his opposing views was a violation of free speech.
Jones said the words from the justices on Monday can shed some light on how we interpret the law in terms of the difference between hate speech and exercising your guaranteed freedom of speech.
“I heard two things on Monday,” she said. “On one hand, yes, law has an answer to the speech that was proposed at Berkeley. I heard something else on Monday from Justice Baer which was her imploring us to understand that the Constitution is our Constitution and not … a fixed text. It is a text to be interpreted, to be struggled over and to be transformed.”
After the panel, Mitchell said the discussion helped the students contemplate both the colloquium and who is part of the University community.
“I think one thing that was nice to see was we’re talking about diversity and getting to hear and unpacking of the experience of Monday’s talk with Justices Sotomayor and Baer and getting to hear these different perspectives,” he said. “(The panelists) are all members of our community too and I think that’s something, as students, that we forget.”