University President Mary Sue Coleman has recently voiced concern that the passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative could prohibit programs benefiting women. Citing a study released by the University’s Center for the Education of Women, Coleman has argued that MCRI could prevent the state from operating any gender-specific programs. Coleman and other opponents of MCRI are right to point out the unintended effects the proposal could have on programs affecting women. They should not, however, shy away from addressing the core motive of MCRI: ending state programs designed to aid underrepresented minorities. While a gender-only strategy to combat MCRI may seem appealing, it does not attack MCRI’s main focus and will be ultimately unsuccessful.
The University may see its efforts to recruit and retain women faculty in engineering and science departments banned if MCRI is placed on the ballot and passed in November 2006. The program to encourage female science faculty, nicknamed ADVANCE, offers visiting women personal interviews with current women faculty members as well as individual mentors who can address any concerns prospective women faculty may have.
University spokeswoman Julie Peterson expressed concern over the question of how the courts would interpret the proposed amendment, saying “it could have an impact on programs like ADVANCE and programs that provide outreach and assistance to women.”
Supporters of MCRI cite a passage in the initiative that supposedly would allow some gender-specific programs to continue operating so long as they are “reasonably necessary to the normal operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Similar language in California’s Proposal 209, however, did not stop the courts from considering lawsuits filed against health care programs that favored women, including battered women’s shelters. California courts ultimately ruled in favor of shelters because California had a preexisting tort protections that shielded them. Michigan, however, does not have such statutes. Additionally, hirings of women and minorities at California universities dropped considerably after the initiative was passed, and has only recently returned to levels existing before the initiative was passed.
Opponents of MCRI have often accused its backers of leading a disinformation campaign. From the very name of the initiative, which co-opts the image of the civil rights movement, to the ballot language itself, which speaks of prohibiting discrimination, voters may be unaware that MCRI seeks to prohibit affirmative action programs. What is beyond dispute, however, is MCRI’s main purpose — ending programs benefiting underrepresented minorities, particularly in university admissions. Former University of California Regent Ward Connerly, who was a key MCRI backer, was instrumental in the passage of Proposal 209.
Those working against MCRI are right to draw attention to its potential effects on women. Like Proposal 2, an intentionally vague initiative that has left a great deal of confusion in the wake of its passage, MCRI is a broad amendment that would likely have unforeseen consequences if passed. At its core, however, MCRI is a referendum on racial affirmative action programs, and voters will likely evaluate it as such. By focusing only on MCRI’s potential effects on women, opponents may wine a short-term battle, but in the end, risk losing the war.