The latest chapter in the Michigamua controversy involves a local attorney who has sued the University and called for Native American students to boycott the University’s undergraduate program. Attorney and alum Christopher Bell’s concerns that Michigamua has mocked and trivialized Native American culture are understandable and certainly valid. The boycott he proposes, however, would put little pressure on a University administration that says it has cut all ties to Michigamua. Bell has explained his advocacy of a boycott by stating that the University needs to choose between Michigamua and its Native American students. It seems clear, however, that the University has already chosen the latter.
It is true that the University long provided support to Michigamua and tolerated the secret society’s offensive practices. It may even be the case – as Bell’s lawsuit alleges – that the University and Michigamua did not live up to their 1989 agreement requiring Michigamua to eliminate its abuse of Native American cultures.
Following the Students of Color Coalition’s 37-day sit-in of Michigamua’s former meeting space in the tower of the Michigan Union, however, the University appears to have dissociated itself from Michigamua. It does not recognize Michigamua as an official student group, and Michigamua no longer has a dedicated meeting space on campus. The University administration has repeatedly asserted that although Michigamua continues to exist as a private, off-campus group, the University maintains no ties to it. Proponents of a boycott have not shown otherwise.
Short of cracking down on the group and expelling any student found to be a member, there seems to be little else the University can do regarding Michigamua. Such an action, however, would constitute a gross – and likely unlawful – expansion of the University’s authority over students, as it would essentially strip students of their right to free association.
It is difficult to see what a boycott of the University by Native American students could accomplish. As Michigamua is a private group beyond the scope of the University’s control, the primary effect of a boycott would merely be to decrease the representation of Native American students on campus. Besides being personally detrimental to individual students who might have benefited from an education at the University, such a move would weaken the voice of Native Americans in campus dialogue and debate. In addition to decreasing the diversity of the student body, a boycott would threaten the campus presence of a community whose activism has been vital in driving Michigamua toward reform.
The climate that has encouraged a boycott, however, is evidence of the very real harm caused by Michigamua’s use of Native American practices and rituals. Michigamua claims that it no longer engages in such racist practices. It is obvious and understandable, however, that much of the campus community sees little reason to trust a group as secretive as Michigamua. Despite Michigamua’s professed aims of serving the University anonymously, it is clear that its continued secrecy – and its offensive name – does nothing to remedy campuswide distrust in the organization’s nature. In light of this, Michigamua should become more open. If Michigamua has abandoned its racist and insensitive past as it has claimed, it would have nothing to fear or lose by doing so.