At last Thursday’s University’s Board of Regent’s meeting, University President Mary Sue Coleman proclaimed that “great struggles occur at great universities,” while members of the #BBUM movement sat in the front row with duct tape over their mouths, symbolizing the University’s silencing of Black students. Coleman’s remarks were a Janus-faced affair of culpability and triumph, complicity and victimhood. On the one hand, the University of Michigan has “struggled in the wake of Proposal 2.” On the other, “universities look to us to develop new solutions.” At the University, “commitment has never waned,” yet we “haven’t always gotten it right through the decades.” Capping this rhetorical diversity dance, a choral group sang “Hail to the Victors” to a room packed full of protesters addressing the University’s low minority enrollment, poor racial climate and growing class inequality. Without irony, Coleman delivered a disjointed speech which both lauded the University’s leadership and all but admitted its utter inadequacy. Her farcical remarks were capped with a bizarre and jarring chorus of triumph.

The logic put forth by Coleman was as incoherent as the rhetoric was empty. So what allows the University to enumerate its myriad shortcomings while simultaneously trumpeting the triumphant narrative of the Victors? The answer takes two forms. First, the University co-opts student movements. The University strategically repackages the legacy of student activism as a part of its triumphant narrative about the University as a nationwide leader in diversity. Second, the University nonsensically trumpets that very narrative despite increasing evidence to undermine it.

The history of student activism on campus is an important one, but can be claimed only by the students who forged these paths. The institution can only claim to have been the impetus of these protests, not its torchbearers. In 1968 when students took over an administration building after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, they helped establish what is now the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies. The 1970 strike initiated by the Black Action Movement led to the University’s first aiming for a goal of 10 percent Black enrollment. The 1987 sit-in by the United Coalition Against Racism forced a reluctant University to issue Nelson Mandela an honorary degree, close for MLK Day and eventually draft the Michigan Mandate — a comprehensive and flexible plan to increase diversity among students and faculty. In all of these cases, students led and the University followed. The point at which the University can claim to be an inclusive and diverse institution is a fleeting one in a long history of isolation and unmet promises. We must create a movement that cannot be absorbed, appropriated and repackaged under the banner of the Victors. There is a legacy to be claimed here, but we must make sure that the students, and not the administration, rightfully claim it.

The co-optation of student movements is especially damaging when it bolsters the false idea that the University has historically been a safe and inclusive place for students, staff and faculty of color. That notion is shoddy history. Coleman can tell us that the University leads in diversity and support for students color. Provost Martha Pollack can tell us that the problem is only a few years old. But too often the popular Prop 2 narrative elides the true history. A 2008 report called Opportunity Adrift, released by a nonprofit advocacy group, found that the University of Michigan ranked in the bottom quartile in minority student access and success. It listed the University along with Indiana University as one of two institutions to receive “the lowest overall marks for performance and progress.” Furthermore, it was one of only six nationwide whose ranking had dropped from 2005 to 2008. Schools do not look to the University as a model in diversity and this is not a new problem. Students have long come to this conclusion. It is time this administration does so as well.

The University would like to think that it can simply rebrand itself through new hires, new positions, and new initiatives. But at this point, the current administration has lost what little credibility it had. If Coleman will not deliver anything more than empty rhetoric, President-elect Mark Schlissel must take a stand. Until proven otherwise, his silence stands as a tacit endorsement for this administration’s inaction. As Barbara Ransby, former United Coalition Against Racism activist, told a crowd of over 1,000 at the Speak Out in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library last Tuesday, students must continue to be “the conscience of this institution.” Now it is time for the institution to demonstrate that it has one.

This viewpoint was written by the United Coalition for Racial Justice.

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