Hundreds of members of Brown Chapel, a predominantly black African Methodist Episcopalian church, gave University President Mary Sue Coleman a standing ovation after she delivered a resounding reaffirmation of the University’s dedication to diversity at an Ypsilanti banquet hall two weeks ago.
After the address, a dozen attendees hugged Coleman and thanked her.
Because voters passed a ban on the use of affirmative action by public institutions in November, speeches like the one Coleman gave in Ypsilanti may be one of the most important factors in encouraging underrepresented minorities to apply to the University.
One of the biggest concerns University administrators had about the effects of the affirmative action ban was that it would hurt the school’s image in the eyes of minority high school students, making them less likely to apply.
“If students don’t apply, there isn’t much the school can do,” Coleman said in an interview after the speech. “They have to apply first.”
Some high school seniors even went so far as to say the rhetoric from adminstrators after the passage of Proposal 2 did more to convince them that the campus is welcoming to minorities than any affirmative action program had.
Administrators have often officials hailed a 2003 Supreme Court case that upheld the use of affirmative action in admissions, but though the University was permitted to continue using race as a factor in admissions, it saw a 28 percent drop in the number of black applicants during the next admissions cycle.
It is widely believed that the decline in applicants was a result of a Supreme Court order, to stop using a point system, which automatically awarded points toward admission to underrepresented minority applicants.
Once the point system was removed, the number of minority applicants plummeted. Coleman said the Supreme Court’s ruling was misunderstood.
“There are some misconceptions that we lost the case,” she said in a 2004 interview with The Washington Post.
People know the University lost its battle against Proposal 2, which banned the use of affirmative action. What many are unsure of, however, is what the school plans to do to keep the number of minority applicants from dropping the way it did back in 2003.
IMPACT ON PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS
After California voters banned affirmative action in 1996, minority applications to the University of California at Berkley and Los Angeles dropped dramatically.
But if Proposal 2 will have such an effect at the University, it hasn’t happened yet.
According to preliminary admissions data, a total of 2,460 underrepresented minorities had applied to the University by the beginning of February – a 5 percent increase from the same point last year.
The increase in applicants may have been due to the fact that Proposal 2 was looming. Students at Cass Technical High School in Detroit said that before the initiative passed, University admissions officers encouraged them to apply as early as possible because it would be harder to get in if Proposal 2 was approved.
“Admissions officers came to our school and told us to apply early,” said Cass Tech senior Dwayne Riley, who has already enrolled at the University for next year.
Admissions officers visited Cass Tech – a major feeder school for underrepresented minorities who attend the University – frequently throughout the fall.
Ashley Grant, also a senior at Cass, said the University’s image may have even improved since Proposal 2 passed.
“I definitely don’t think Proposal 2 hurt Michigan’s image,” said Grant, who is still waiting to find out whether she’s been admitted to the University. “If anything, I think it made the school look a lot better because it was trying to do everything in its power to admit as many students of color as possible.”
Doris Taylor Walls, a guidance counselor at Cass Tech, has worked as a liaison between high school students and admissions counselors for 33 years.
While she has taken notice of the University’s increased minority recruiting, Walls said what matters most to students is that the University is reaching out.
“I think students at Cass were aware of Michigan’s stance on Proposal 2,” Walls said. “The simple fact that the University stood up to fight for diversity matters to them.”
Another Cass senior Rayna Wright, has also been admitted to the University, but is still waiting to hear back from Yale. She echoed Walls’s argument.
“There may be some students who are afraid to apply now because there is no affirmative action anymore,” Wright said. “But it’s still a great school, and it’s helped that (University administrators) have made clear their need for diversity.”
ALUMNI PITCH IN
Over the past few weeks, thousands of phone calls and e-mails have gone out to University alumni asking them to help recruit underrepresented minorities.
But at first, many in the University administration – including admissions officers – didn’t know where the calls were coming from.
It turned out that the University’s Alumni Association coordinated the outreach calls.
Alumni Association President Steve Grafton said alumni have been helping recruit prospective students to the University for years.
But he said this is the first time the Alumni Association has targeted minorities.
“We determined it would be good if we could help increase outreach, and in particular convince underrepresented minority students who have been admitted to the University to enroll,” Grafton said.
The Alumni Association paid for more than 8,000 automated phone calls and sent out about 5,000 e-mails to minority alumni asking for help in the recruitment process.
Grafton said nearly 300 of those have offered to help in some way.
Grafton said one of the reasons his group decided to get involved in minority recruitment was the negative perception of the University after Proposal 2.
“Part of it for us is that we’re concerned about what kind of message – even though the University is not sending it – the passage of Proposal 2 sends to minority students,” he said.
Cunningham, though, was emphatic in expressing her belief that the affirmative action ban hasn’t hurt the University’s image among potential applicants.
“This is one of the top schools academically,” Cunningham said. “It’s very rigorous, but we believe that underrepresented minority students are getting the message that they are welcome.”