I spent my week watching Law School Dean Jeffrey Lehman do the cable news circuit. I channel surfed from MSNBC to CNN (then, when things got redundant, to the Food Network and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge) then back to MSNBC, taking in as much affirmative action coverage as I could (as well as a few minutes with the Naked Chef). I get this very unique rush when I hear the University discussed by prominent figures on national television. I think, “Yeah! Michigan! I go there! And you there – in the navy suit and goofy made-for-cable haircut! Talk about my school more!” This time around though, unlike last month’s coverage of the self-imposed athletic sanctions, the attention Michigan is receiving is exhilarating rather than numbing, esteeming rather than embarrassing.
There is so much at stake in this trial – not just for this school, but for higher education in general; for the debate on race, the ultimate issue of contention in this country; for the Supreme Court, and its speckled history on the matter of diversity and inclusion. My fear, though, as I listened to Lehman match wits with cable’s best talking heads, is that people are attaching too much weight to the decision that the high court will hand down next summer.
The debate over affirmative action is a small part of a great and complex problem in America. The affirmative action program, at least in regard to education, was never meant to be a permanent fix. Rather, it was a temporary solution – a way to actively diversify higher education until the time came when active diversification was no longer needed. Affirmative action is a Band-Aid solution. It is a smart and so far successful Band-Aid solution, but at some point the bandage needs to come off and the wound needs to heal.
While I have seesawed on the debate over the years, something that leaves me cautiously skeptical is the fear that affirmative action assuages the urgency of addressing problems in primary and secondary education. If the numbers of minority students at the University of Michigan are satisfactory it is more difficult to rally popular concern over the quality of education for minority students before they get here. The national attention that the affirmative action debate receives needs to be redirected toward a debate over primary and secondary education, so that the program need not exist at all. Diversity at the university level may or may not be a compelling state interest. I believe that it is, although I look forward to a time when the state, via the University, does not need to go out of its way to assure that it exists.
My fear, then, is if the Supreme Court upholds the University’s policy, that victory will be declared and ivory tower intellectuals will rest easy in their confident belief that underprivileged minorities are being adequately served. If the Court does rule in the University’s favor then there is a burden on educators, administrators and lawmakers to resolutely address the problems that gave rise to affirmative action in the first place.
If there is a silver living in the Supreme Court ruling against the University, it is that it will force the issue of addressing some of those other fundamentally significant societal problems.
This is big. Real big. But this summer, when the ruling comes down, remember that it does not end the debate on affirmative action, and a ruling that upholds affirmative action does not mean that we can turn our attention away from the most important issue: searching for creative and feasible ways to remedy public education in urban and rural communities. The national media and the national consciousness will be transfixed on this trial and on this University. But when the dust settles in June, those cameras and that attention need to stay focused – and redirected to the community.
David Horn can be reached at email@example.com.