I think of Proposal 2’s passage in two ways: as a fait accompli – affirmative action is gone and not coming back – and as an opportunity. When the history of this University is written, the ban on affirmative action will be looked on as a turning point; Election Day 2006 will be regarded as a watershed moment. That is, if we’re honest with ourselves about what the passage of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative means.
We must admit two things: that affirmative action is dead and that if we want diversity, it’ll take much more than slapping 20 admissions points – or, since the old point-based system was deemed unconstitutional, its “holistic” equivalent – on the problem and thinking we’ve fought the good fight.
In my five years at the University, I’ve never heard more thoughtful, constructive dialogue on the problems which ail minorities than I have in the five days since MCRI passed. The “what now” – what will we do now to ensure minority representation at the University? – conversation simply wasn’t happening when affirmative action existed, when its proponents relied solely on social engineering and point scales to do what the education system couldn’t: get black students into Michigan.
This is why I’m given pause when I hear that University President Mary Sue Coleman wants to fight MCRI. As she said in her Nov. 8, post-MCRI address to the campus: “I will not stand by while the very heart and soul of this great university is threatened. We are Michigan and we are diversity. . I have directed our General Counsel to consider every legal option available to us.”
Affirmative action is off the table. Period. Michigan’s voters – nearly 60 percent of them, majorities in all but three counties – demand it so. Coleman, above all, should realize this, and should lead the paradigm shift as our University moves beyond race preferences. The worst that could happen is for the University to conveniently ignore that fact, because that ignorance will enable it to do what affirmative action’s supporters have been doing far too long: hinging the fate of diversity on a divisive social policy.
The University has proven itself willing to shell out the money to defend affirmative action and ensure diversity. It’s done it in court cases. It’s done it the past 30-plus years through the Bridge Program, which prepares disadvantaged students for the rigors of the University. Now that affirmative action is a nonissue, though, I wonder whether we’ll see that same commitment come through in more creative ways, or if we’ll fight in vain in the courts so that we can soak up the limelight and maintain our reputation as the defenders of diversity.
Coleman should save our money on the lawyers, and instead spend it creating work-study or fellowship positions that will give minority graduates the chance to give back to their communities, either in full-time teaching or mentoring roles. And it doesn’t have to be limited to minorities: Anyone who feels a sense of commitment to ensuring quality education in Michigan would be more than welcome to help, and could make some money doing it. Or perhaps the University could promote (and lead the efforts to obtain state funding for) a “Teach for Michigan” program that would exchange free schooling for a promise that the “leaders and best” would make their presence felt in Michigan classrooms upon graduation.
Either program would allow the University to maintain the funding levels needed to attract top minority students, while putting them to work in classrooms where they could train and recruit the next generation of potential Wolverines. Talk about a “Michigan Difference.”
But rather than tackle the problem at the roots by working to ensure that Michigan’s high schools graduate students who are qualified for admission and prepared for college coursework, Coleman seems satisfied that the “20 points” mentality is enough. She seems intent on defending it publicly and legally, rather than privately, and at the grassroots level. There is a way to ensure that our minority numbers don’t drop, that our sacred cow of diversity is protected without resorting to race preferences. But it’ll take no small dose of reality and creativity to find that solution. It’ll sure as hell take more than 20 points.
What now, indeed.
James David Dickson can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.