On Nov. 8 2006, the day after Michigan voters approved a proposal to eradicate affirmative action from the state, University President Mary Sue Coleman proclaimed, “I am standing here today to tell you that I will not allow this university to go down the path of mediocrity. That is not Michigan. Diversity makes us strong, and it is too critical to our mission, too critical to our excellence and too critical to our future to simply abandon.” Nearly five years later, have we stood by this mission to keep diversity a priority? Let’s take a look at the numbers.
Obviously, income and race are not the only indicators of diversity, but they are important identifiers when considering society’s usual definition of diverse. According to a 2004 study, the University freshman class that year had more students whose parents’ household income was more than $200,000, compared to students whose family income was at the national median of about $50,000. The University’s demographic reports indicate in 1998 the University’s entering class was 66.2 percent white and 25.4 percent students of color — including 8.7 percent black. In addition, the 2009 entering class was 74 percent white students and 23.4 percent students of color — this time the student population was only 5 percent black. The black student population was the only demographic to significantly drop over the past decade.
A look at these numbers brings a few items to mind. First, I fit the criteria of an average University student: I am white, and my parents have a combined income of more than $200,000. And although we shouldn’t limit ourselves to view people in terms of their wealth and race, I do think it’s important for us to contemplate the implication of studying at a school where a majority of students are white and upper middle class. How do you think this has an effect on your education? Are we prevented an opportunity to learn about a world outside of our own? A world that is different than how we perceive it? Would we be challenged more if our campus was not so homogeneous?
Besides the decreased opportunity to learn from those who are different from ourselves, what about the experiences of the quarter of the campus population that is not white? How are the lives of students of color shaped by the fact that they are constantly in the minority? As a white person who thinks about the implications of her race everyday, I am relentlessly aware of my white privilege. I can go anywhere on this campus and never be a minority and never need to consider my race. But that is why it’s a privilege — I do not have to think about my race on a day-to-day basis. When I look at people in positions of power in academia, government, business and medicine, I see people of my race.
The other day in a discussion section, a piece of art by a black artist was brought up, and several students immediately looked at the single black man in the class to hear his perspective. When speaking in class, I’m not expected to speak on the behalf of my whole race. When art including white people is shown, no one looks around the class at all 20 white students to hear their opinion of the piece. It’s necessary to notice these moments because they clearly show the effects of being on a campus where three out of four students are white.
So, have we gone down the path of mediocrity? We have if we continue to be blind to the privileges of the majority of students on this campus. The “Michigan Difference” will be achieved through having more constructive conversations about how our social identities affect our daily lives.
Nora Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.