The timing couldn”t have been better.
Although National Public Radio had been planning for months to host an affirmative action debate in a live broadcast from the University”s campus, yesterday”s program came just two days after the Law School”s defense of race-based admissions was rejected at the district court level.
Hundreds of University students, faculty and community members flocked to Rackham Auditorium to see “Talk of the Nation” host Juan Williams mediate an intense debate between two of the major parties in the case Law School Dean Jeffrey Lehman and Larry Purdy, an attorney for the Center for Individual Rights, which is challenging the school”s race-conscious admissions policy.
John McWhorter, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California”s Berkeley campus, joined the discussion as a staunch opponent of race-conscious admissions.
“Affirmative action has been the most divisive racial issue in America over the last quarter century,” Williams said as he introduced the program. “At the center of the debate has been the University of Michigan.”
Purdy began the discussion by reflecting on the recent decision in the case, made Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman.
“We think that Judge Friedman has issued a powerful reaffirmation of the right of an individual to be judged on his or her merit,” Purdy said.
McWhorter echoed Purdy”s idea. Being black himself, he said he is frustrated that he can not avoid being a beneficiary of affirmative action.
“Low standards means low performance,” McWhorter said. “Affirmative action is a fancy way of saying low standards.”
But Lehman defended the Law School”s affirmative action policy.
“Race matters more in society than it ought to,” Lehman said. “This is not something that was created by our admissions policy.”
He added that the Law School is very selective of all applicants, regardless of race.
“It”s a matter of choosing between a talented and diverse class and a talented un-diverse class,” he said. “And students simply receive a better education in a diverse environment.”
Donna Pettway, an LSA junior, challenged an earlier statement by McWhorter that affirmative action stigmatizes minorities. Pettway said that as a black student at the University, she doesn”t feel any negative benefits of affirmative action. Rather, she continued, she”s outraged by the challenges to the policy.
McWhorter”s response caused audience members to gasp in shock.
“The civil rights leaders of yesteryear would be perplexed to hear a young black student indignantly defending her right to be judged by lower standards,” he said. “No race has ever climbed to the top that way and neither will we.”
Pettway then said affirmative action doesn”t take away from the consideration given to her grades or essays.
Miranda Massie, lead attorney for the student intervenors in the lawsuit, said she was infuriated that the intervenors were not represented on the panel, particularly in light of the last-minute addition of Purdy to the show.
“It”s outrageous,” she said. “The show was scandalously biased. They had one person speaking for the University and two for the position that minority students are inferior. No one was up there to stand up for the minority students.”
The second hour of the broadcast was devoted to the changing face of higher education. University President Lee Bollinger joined presidents from a Georgia community college, a regional college in Washington state and a private liberal arts college in Minnesota to confront questions about tuition costs and financial aid, distance learning and competition for students among the various types of schools.