At nine in the morning, about 500 freshman honors students listlessly assemble for Prof. H.D. Cameron’s lecture. On this morning, Great Books 191 seats one black person.
The glaring lack of underrepresented minorities is no secret to students in the Honors Program, a division of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Since the program is relatively small – enrolling about 2,000 students – most students and administrators have noticed the lack of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
“We are always looking to recruit more minorities. It’s one of the things that we worry about a lot,” said Donna Wessel Walker, assistant director of the Honors Program.
In order to more effectively recruit minorities to the program, the program’s administrators say that it is altering its admissions procedure. The current process relies on an appellate system, where students can request an additional review of their application. Many students, however, are unaware of this option.
The program will use the new undergraduate application to look at candidates more holistically, a decision it hopes will increase minority enrollment.
Under the former admissions criteria, students were virtually required to hold at least a 1400 on their SAT and about a 31 on their ACT.
Administration officials said the standard was only loosely enforced, acting more as a guideline than a restrictive barrier. According to Wessel Walker, no student has ever needed these scores to gain admission.
“You never had to, because we’ve always accepted students below those levels,” Wessel Walker said.
Statistics and records on the program’s racial composition are not available to the public. But the visible lack of minority students, who are statistically less likely to obtain such scores, indicates that the standards were more rigidly enforced. The program’s director, Stephen Darwall, confirmed that students were once admitted “by and large based on test scores and grades.”
Administrators, teachers and students agree that since minority students are less likely to achieve such scores, they have a difficult time getting into the program. And applicants who can meet these standards are often offered admission into more selective private institutions or Ivy League schools. The University’s high out-of-state tuition rate acts as a financial deterent to enrollment.
“Folks from minority groups who do have very strong academic credentials, including grades and test scores, are very hotly recruited by the most selective schools. These schools admit students on a need-blind basis, and they often provide full financial aid,” Darwell said. If you’re an African-American student of lesser means, then you can be expected to be accepted and offered a financial-aid package sufficient to enable you to go. It’s a very hard market. Recruiting highly-talented minority students is hotly competitive, because there are a lot institutions vying for them.” Both Darwall and Wessel Walker noted that the program simply does not have the funds to compete with such institutions.
Meanwhile, opinions of minorities in the program ranged from dissatisfied to indignant. “I thought it would be different. In the flyers they sent me, the pictures were more diverse. When I got here, I was a little shocked. It’s a bit disheartening, especially when I know there are so many intelligent minorities on campus,” said freshman honors student Yulanda Curtis, who is black.
But junior honors student Madison Moore took a harsher tone. “When you look at the numbers, what does that say to you? I don’t think it has anything to do with black potential or innate intelligence. We constitute about 4 percent of the population at some of the best universities. So when there’s only 10 out of 500, what does that say to you?” said Moore, who is black. “I think its upsetting because while minorities are being admitted to the University, they are somehow being sifted out of honors. I think that might say something about he quality of education,” Moore added.
Other students in the program also lamented the lack of diversity. Freshman honors student Grace Luo recognized a stark difference from her diverse home in California and noticed that her classes lack minorities.
Sophomore honors student Jay Rapaport expressed disappointment. “I came to U of M to meet people of all different kinds of backgrounds, and that kind of diversity is noticeably lacking. It makes the experience of the Honors Program less satisfying than it could be,” Rapaport said.
Several minority students in the program felt uneasy about the lack of diversity in their classes, saying that it constricts academic enrichment. They mentioned a number of problems, like being the only minority in a predominantly white class.
“On one hand, it does constrict a bit because the classes you take are not representative of what you’re going to see in the real world,” said freshman honors student Teresa Lo, who is Hispanic. Lo added that the viewpoints expressed in class are often not well rounded.
“I don’t personally feel singled out, but I feel that the environment could possibly be better. It’s like I’m representing the whole race,” said sophomore honors student James Carson, who is black.
Many minorities accepted into the program, as with most of the students in general, tend either to be wealthy, in-state, or on scholarship, confirmed both directors. A number of them also come from predominantly white high schools, making it easier for them to adapt to this environment.
The lack of diversity in the classroom becomes more poignant considering the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that upheld affirmative action on the principle of diversity. In the affirmative action cases, the University argued that a diverse student body enhances a school’s educational environment.
“That was the University’s entire argument, that racial diversity is beneficial to the academic experience. If that’s what the University believes and it’s not extended to all its programs, then the University’s failing itself. If the belief is that true diversity is diversity of ideas, then it’s not,” said Ruben Duran, LSA senior and editor in chief of the Michigan Review.
But few students – of any race – fault the program or the University for the low numbers of minorities. Most denied any hypocrisy in the administration, believing that the problem is more a product of society that than the University’s admissions policy.
“I don’t see any other way to bring students into the honors program other than picking the top 10 percent of entering freshmen. It’s a blind, objective standard; the University can’t be held accountable for who meets that standard and who doesn’t,” Rapaport said.
“I think, on the whole, the reason why it has happened, is because there are so few minorities branching out into (higher education). I know many minorities that allow themselves just to be what their mother, and mother’s mother was,” said Lo. “I think, for the most part, it’s so difficult for many minorities to branch out of that mindset and believe that ‘you can do everything and be anything.’ “
Administrators and students rejected any theory claiming that there is an innate problem of intelligence within the minority community. Instead, the program’s directory cited the work of Psychology Prof. Claude Steele, a former University faculty member who has studied discrimination in testing.
Many recognized that solving the problem would be difficult and expressed trepidation about lowering standards to provide greater access.
“You also don’t want to bring people in great books who are going to be frustrated and are not up to the task, who are not comfortable at the level. It’s just unkind,” said Prof. H. Don Cameron, who teaches Great Books 191, the class most honors freshman take. Cameron also said that, of those minorities he has worked with, almost all of those admitted do well.
Students like Duran echoed this, saying that lowering standards would simply defeat the purpose of the Honors Program, which is inherently selective and has high standards.
While students offered alternative solutions such as providing the program with more funds for scholarships or improving its prestige by marketing it better, honors administrators are changing the admissions process.
In the past, administrators relied on an appellate process. Students who were not accepted into the program were allowed to contact the University ask for additional review. But many students are not aware of this option, since it is only located in the program’s flyer to school counselors and on its website. Information is often obtained by other means, like word of mouth .
“I heard through other people that they send you a letter. But I didn’t get one. So I called them, and they reviewed my file,” said Nicole Ward, a black freshman honors student.
Administrators hope the new undergraduate application, adopted as a result of this summer’s court decision, will afford the program more versatility in admissions. Using a more “holistic” attempt will allow the program to consider race as one of an applicant’s strengths. This, administrators say, will increase the number of minorities in the program.
“What we’re doing is using the new admission materials that the new application has, which includes a couple of essay questions, to give us a better gauge of which students are ‘ready, willing and able,’ who are really eager for the kind of intellectual challenge and exchange that the Honors Program creates, said Darwall, the program’s director. “We want to identify not just students who have done well on tests and gotten good grades but also want to part of a vigorous intellectual community.”