DEARBORN — Speaking at the Michigan Women’s Summit on Friday, University President Mary Sue Coleman had sharp words for supporters of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, predicting a detriment in female employment and benefits if the proposal is to pass in the state.

The ballot measure seeks to eliminate the use of affirmative action by state institutions.

Coleman asked, “What was the rhetoric, what is the reality?” characterizing MCRI’s backers as deceptive and suggesting they have not been completely honest about the potential impact of MCRI on women.

The summit, held at the campuses of three state universities — the University of Michigan at Dearborn, Michigan State University and Western Michigan University — was organized by Michigan United, a group formed to inform Michigan residents about the potential effect of anti-affirmative action campaigns in the state. Speakers at the Dearborn campus included Gov. Jennifer Granholm and wife of U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn), Debbie Dingell.

Coleman said any gender-specific program administered by the state could be targeted if MCRI succeeds.

She compared MCRI to Proposal 2, which prohibited the state from recognizing same-sex marriage.

Supporters of Proposal 2, which was approved by voters in November, said before the election that the ballot measure was not targeting benefits same-sex partners receive.

But now, the same law firm that was instrumental in crafting the language of Proposal 2 – the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor — is challenging same-sex benefits offered by Ann Arbor Public Schools and may set its sights next on the University’s benefits policy.

MCRI spokesman Chetly Zarko disputed Coleman’s characterization of the initiative.

“The basic problem is … we’ve never attempted to deceive anybody and say this isn’t about gender preferences,” he said.

The summit was held one day after a University researcher Sue Kaufman, also present at the event, released research that compared the effects of MCRI to those of Proposition 209 in California — an act that bans the use of affirmative action in the state and as a result has hurt female employment, according to Kaufman.

“One thing we found was that after passage there was a rapid drop in the hiring of women faculty in the University of California systems, and it’s taken them 10 years to recover to the point they were,” Kaufman said in an earlier interview.

She added that women’s health programs would be hurt if MCRI passed because they’re gender-specific.

Coleman also argued that gender-specific policies in academia are necessary for the health of the American public. She noted that medical research conducted at the University must address the health concerns of both men and women. She held that women’s health issues could only be adequately addressed if women were actually conducting the research.

She went on to say that research is funded by the federal government and taxpayers’ dollars should not support a system that does not serve the entire population.

Judy Karandjeff, executive director of the Michigan Women’s Commission, presented statistics from a 2004 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that revealed women in the state still lag far behind men in earnings and the holding of managerial positions. Michigan ranks the second worst in the nation in wage equity.

But the study also shows some positive trends, including relatively high rates of political participation by Michigan women.

“If we abandon affirmative action programs in Michigan … it will reduce the gains we have,” Karandjeff said, visibly moved. “I don’t want this kind of report card again,” she added. “It’s pitiful.”

But Zarko said Coleman and the other panelists were confusing outcomes with process and argued a fair process can lead to unequal outcomes.

“Attempting to correct societal discrimination with preferences is inappropriate. You end up increasing … the resentment,” he said. “To end societal discrimination, you have to end government preferences,” he added.

Using the same distinction between outcomes and process, Zarko said MCRI allows programs that do not formally exclude men but attract women almost exclusively.

He also said MCRI does not seek to eliminate outreach programs that recruit women for male-dominated, higher-paying fields — as long as those programs are available to everyone. Programs such as these that exist at the University are Women in Science and Engineering.

Elizabeth Bunn, secretary-treasurer of the United Auto Workers, attributed the wage inequity revealed in the study in part to occupational segregation — when men dominate higher-paying fields. The study also showed a low percentage of women professionals in the Michigan.

While Bunn supported the use of gender-specific programs to boost women’s salaries, she also suggested that the wages be raised in female-dominated professions, though she did not specify how this could be accomplished.

Another solution she proposed was the formation of unions.

“Those (wage) differences in unionized workplaces don’t exist,” she said.

Lansing Community College President Paula Cunningham said the scarcity of women in corporate boardrooms may be partly the fault of women themselves.

“We don’t know the art of negotiation,” she said, referring to the reluctance of some women to seek promotions and raises. “We don’t ask.”

Gender-specific programs are necessary, panelists argued, to teach women the skills they need to advance their careers.

“If you’re not smart about the system, opportunities and choices you might have aren’t available to you,” Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon said.

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