Correction: A story in yesterday’s edition of the Daily (RC Profs debate racial preference) incorrectly reported that econ Prof. Tom Weisskopf is currently director of the Residential College. Weisskopf has retired from his position as RC director, and Slavic Languages Prof. Herb Eagle is serving as interim RC director.

Sarah Royce
Professor Carl Cohen and RC Director Thomas Weisskopf debate issues pertaining to the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative yesterday. (SHUBRA OHRI/Daily)

 

The campus debate on affirmative action continued last night when two University professors faced off on the issue in the Chemistry Building.

The Latino fraternity Lambda Theta Phi presented a debate between RC Prof. Carl Cohen, an outspoken proponent of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, and affirmative action supporter Tom Weisskopf, the director of the Residential College.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is a ballot measure that if passed would ban the use of affirmative action by public institutions in Michigan.

Throughout the debate, Cohen and Weisskopf agreed that their ideologies overlap.

But if so, why the debate?

Weisskopf said affirmative action works to rectify the “legacy of past negative discrimination, slavery, Jim Crow laws and the like.” He acknowledged that there are some faults in the implementation of affirmative action but did not specify what he thought those were.

Cohen vehemently disagreed with Weisskopf.

“Our state, our government, has no business giving preference to anyone on the basis of the color of her skin – that is morally wrong,” he said.

Cohen said affirmative action today is much different than it was 40 years ago.

“What is called affirmative action now is blatantly discriminatory,” he said.

Weisskopf said Cohen wrongly assigned a higher priority to the “procedural ideal of treating every individual exactly the same way” than “the substantive ideal of reducing enormous inequalities.”

Weisskopf also made a distinction between “positive” and “negative” discrimination. He described negative discrimination as the unfair treatment of a particular group and defined positive discrimination as unequal treatment aimed at improving a group’s standing in society.

Cohen disagreed, saying, “It is unacceptable to talk about positive discrimination and negative discrimination. Discrimination by race is intrinsically invidious.”

To illustrate how he thinks students are hurt by the use of racial preferences in the University’s admissions process, Cohen excerpted a letter from LSA junior Miesha Williamson printed in The Michigan Daily: “When I ask a question in class, I have to worry about being seen as the dumb black girl who doesn’t deserve to be here.”

Cohen said the fact that Williamson must face this stigma is cruel.

Weisskopf said he agreed that Williamson’s concerns are a negative consequence of affirmative action but stressed that race-based preferences are only one small factor in the admissions process and that all students must be highly qualified to gain entrance to the University.

RC sophomore Mike Lamarra said debates such as last night’s meeting provide an important outlet for campus dialogue on affirmative action.

“A debate like this is good because both sides are equally represented,” he said. “It gives people a healthy opportunity to express these ideas.”

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