A new set of affirmative action guidelines introduced by President Barack Obama on Friday could boost diversity in colleges and universities across the country. But the University may not be one of them.
The guidelines made by the Departments of Justice and Education suggest that higher education institutions should consider criteria such as socioeconomic status, domestic instability and the hardships students have overcome when schools make admissions decisions. The idea behind the criteria is that they will create a diverse student make-up among these categories, which will inherently diversify the racial makeup of the student body. However, the University may not be able to operate under these guidelines because of the statewide ban on the consideration of race in higher education admissions, which was decided on by voters through a ballot proposal in 2006.
Though the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Proposal 2 in a 2-1 decision in July, the court has decided to review the decision. George Washington, a lawyer with the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary, said this means Proposal 2, or the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, will be in effect until judges re-try the case in March.
Washington added that the guidelines, as a declaration of Obama’s views, could influence the court’s ruling.
“It clearly endorses affirmative action, and that endorsement to us makes clear that state laws trying to ban it have to give way to federal civil rights,” Washington said.
The new guidelines replaced those put in place by the Bush administration in 2008. The Bush era guidelines cautioned higher education institutions against selecting students based on race.
However, in an e-mail interview, University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham wrote that the University would assess these guidelines in an effort to improve diversity on campus.
“The University continues its longstanding commitment to promoting the educational benefits of diversity, and will carefully review the guidance to see if it offers any additional ideas that would enable the University to promote those educational benefits in a manner consistent with Proposal 2,” Cunningham wrote.
University Law School Prof. Mark Rosenbaum, who is also a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he believes it is unlikely the University will implement the new guidelines.
One reason, he said, was that evidence has shown that when admissions decisions are made based on economic class, as suggested in Obama’s criteria, institutions do not achieve the same level of diversity they would have if they had selected students based on race.
“It won’t even be close,” Rosenbaum said. “… The goal of a genuinely diverse student body is to look for all the factors — all the different identities that different students could bring to a university campus. And the experience of (economic) class is not the same as the experience of race.”
Since Proposal 2 became a state constitutional amendment in 2006 — by a vote that Washington noted was divided along racial lines — the number of underrepresented minority students at the University has declined every year barring only last year, when the percentage stood at 10.6, in an increase from the 9.1 percent in the 2009-2010 freshman class. Last year, however, also marked the first time new Higher Education Opportunity Act guidelines were implemented for students reporting their ethnicities.
Washington said the guidelines released last week could increase the enrollment of underrepresented minority students if the University chooses to implement the federal measures.
“I think it’s going to mitigate the effect, but it’s not going to get to the same outcomes,” Washington said. “It is not a substitute for race.”
But Washington said he would embrace any effect the guidelines have on University policies, no matter how small.
“I welcome any attempt to get a more diverse student body — it’s what a university education should be about,” Washington said. “But nobody should think for a moment that it’s going to replace or supplant Prop. 2.”