Diversity efforts stalled by affirmative action ban

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By Shoham Geva, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 17, 2014

University President Mary Sue Coleman gave a special address Nov. 8, 2006 on the Diag to a crowd of more than 1,700 students, staff and community members.

One day earlier, Michigan’s voters outlawed the consideration of race in college admissions in a ballot measure that in many ways stemmed from opposition to the University’s practices. Today, the University remains embroiled in the legal battle over the constitutionality of that referendum.

Coleman told the crowd that diversity would remain a priority, both for her and for the University, and she would do whatever it took to maintain it.

“I am standing here today to tell you that I will not allow our university to go down the path to mediocrity. That is not Michigan,” Coleman said in 2006. “Diversity makes us strong, and it is too critical to our mission, too critical to our excellence, too critical to our future simply to abandon.”

Affirmative action policies at the University, along with diversity and climate, are not a debate Coleman started. When she came to the University in 2003, the University was already involved in the issue through two Supreme Court lawsuits filed against LSA and the law school’s race-conscious admissions policies under the former University President Lee Bollinger. In the former case, Grutter v. Bollinger, the court upheld the University’s narrow use of race in admissions in the interest of creating a diverse class of students. The decision to uphold the case is part of what spurred the push to create and implement Proposal 2.

But now, as she prepares to depart 12 years later, with the issue of affirmative action in Michigan is again before the Supreme Court, enrollment numbers for minorities at the University have fallen precipitously and student protests about campus climate are nearly a common occurrence. Her efforts before, during and after Proposal 2 have become a part of what she’ll leave behind.

Beyond the numbers

Today, Black students make up 4.8 percent of the undergraduate population. Hispanic students comprise 4.3 percent. Because the federal government changed its classifications for race and ethnicity in 2010, it is difficult to directly compare 2003 to present day. In the last two decades, Black enrollment peaked at 8.9 percent in 1996.

When looking at Coleman’s legacy on diversity, it’s hard to ignore those numbers.

However, Lester Monts, senior vice provost for academic affairs, said in the context of the legal constraints imposed by Proposal 2 and other measures enacted during her tenure, Coleman’s impact on diversity on campus can more easily be understood in her institutional support such as infrastructure or advocacy.

“Her style is different from President Bollinger’s, her style is different from President Duderstadt’s,” Monts said. “But diversity and multiculturalism is such a part of University life that any president coming in has to embrace it, and put their own stamp on, and I think that’s what Mary Sue has done. I think that’s the infrastructure improvements. I think that’s the expansion of diversity to embrace the things that we’re doing globally.”

On the advocacy side, Law Prof. Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the defense in the legal case challenging Proposal 2, said though the University did not take a position in the legislation itself, its presentations on the effects of Proposal 2 were extremely influential for the court at all levels of the appeal.

“It was a big plus in the case, to know the actual facts on the ground weren’t being sugarcoated and the value of diversity was being described in serious and genuine terms,” Rosenbaum said.

Immediately after the passage of Proposal 2, Coleman established the Diversity Blueprints Task Force, which was charged with discovering ways to increase and maintain diversity on campus without affirmative action.

Out of that task force came a number of initiatives, mostly focusing on how the University reaches out to certain groups of students. The primary recommendation of the commission was the Center for Educational Outreach, which was created in 2008. It runs a number of programs dedicated to increasing the University’s outreach and presence in under-resourced communities across the state.

William Collins, executive director for the Center for Educational Outreach, said the depth of its outreach programs sets it apart from other such programs; it reaches students as early as elementary school. These innovations were largely spurred by recommendations from the Blueprints Commission.

“Much of what we’re trying to do is focus on the process: what you have to do; this is how you do it and these are the goals you should have,” Collins said. “It would be unfair to say there were never any efforts before — of course there were efforts before. But I think ours is somewhat unique and tries to reach students at an earlier point in their academic careers.”

Collins said the center strives to diversify the students who have access to campus, though the overall impact is still difficult to discern because of how relatively new the center is.

More left to be done

Even when the conversation about diversity on campus during Coleman’s tenure is not treated as a question of numbers, the impact of reduced percentages is hard to ignore.

Student groups focused on diversity issues said they understand the legal constraints the University is operating under. However, they claim the University and Coleman could have done more to maintain diversity and alleviate the effects of homogeneity on campus.

LSA senior Erick Gavin, the Black Student Union’s public relations chair, said in his experience, the administration and Coleman have focused on the bigger picture items, like Proposal 2, and less on ameliorating day-to-day issues.

“That’s sometimes where we miscommunicate with each other, the difference between having wide-sweeping policy changes and having life-style, student affairs changes that help students grow and learn,” Gavin said.

Public Policy junior Daniel Morales, a founding member of the Coalition for Tuition Equality and former chair of Central Student Government’s Diversity and Inclusion Commission, said campus climate noticeably deteriorated after Proposal 2 passed.

The Coalition for Tuition Equality protested for the past several years about the tuition status given to undocumented students.

“We could do more, and President Coleman frankly could have done more, when Prop 2 passed, to reinvigorate or kick it up a notch in terms of engaging these communities,” Morales said. “I know it’s really hard and I want to give her credit, but we haven’t kept it diverse and we’ve declined so much and we’ve become so much less diverse. And as we’ve declined we’ve become more hostile. That’s just a natural consequence.”

Monts echoed Gavin’s thoughts on the importance of bettering campus climate.

“All of these (initiatives) don’t solve all the problems,” Monts said. “One of the things I think we neglect sometimes is monitoring issues having to do with campus climate. And this is not something that we’re working on just here at Michigan. Nationwide, university administrators, faculty, and students are trying to grapple with this issue.”

He added that protests can be important for bringing climate issues to the attention of the administration.

Both Gavin and Morales said there has been a lack of student input on discussions on maintaining diversity and a safe climate post-Proposal 2, sometime resulting in policies or approaches that aren’t successful in solving the issues of climate they’re meant to address.

“It’s like a doctor trying to help a patient without asking them what’s wrong,” Gavin said. “Simply asking students what they may need is sometimes the best way to go about doing this.”

A voice for change

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Coleman said when she spoke in the Diag almost eight years ago, her focus was about affirming the University’s commitment to diversity.

“I wanted our community to understand that as a University we very much value diversity and would continue to find legal ways to achieve diversity,” Coleman said. “That’s what we’ve tried to do and I thought it was a message that the community really needed to hear.”

Sometimes, what that commitment to diversity has translated into is still a little murky.

Coleman’s infrastructure represents a long-term effort — one that might not fully come to fruition until long after she’s gone. The outcome of legal action against Proposal 2 is expected sooner, in June, but there’s no guarantee that it will reverse its legal restraints. The impact of movements like CTE or #BBUM campaign isn’t clear, since both groups continue to negotiate with administrators about their respective issues. Coleman has acknowledged in several public addresses that she knows there’s still a lot to be done.

But in the end, the simple fact that she has been so open and so vocal about her support is what her legacy might be shaped by.

“Mary Sue Coleman saying that diversity is something that she wants, I think puts on other administration’s radar, faculty’s radar, and even student’s radar how important diversity is,” Gavin said.

“Can I say specifically what I think she’s done to make changes? I personally cannot,” he added. “I can say things that I think she’s pushed forward, that have enacted a lot of change. I think in her tenure here, a lot of positive things have happened.”