Across the state, activists on both sides of the debate are revving up for an all-out war this fall to settle the fate of affirmative action. Both sides will court Michigan voters, who will decide whether to support the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, a proposal that seeks to ban some affirmative action programs in the state.

Jessica Boullion
Cass Tech student Jessica Steeples raises her hand in a biology class at the high school last month. If MCRI passes in November, University recruiters might have a harder time attracting Cass Tech grads. (EMMA NOLAN-ABRAHAMIAN/Daily)

Meanwhile, Tyrone Winfrey, director of the University’s Detroit Admissions Office, visits Lewis Cass Technical High School, Detroit’s largest magnet school. In his hundreds of visits to the school, Winfrey, a Cass Tech graduate and Detroit School Board member, is anxious to convince those final few admitted students who have not yet decided to come to the University next fall to commit.

It is uncertain how the proposal – which proponents argue would remove unfair racial preferences used in university admissions, government employment and public contracting – would change the relationship between schools like Cass Tech and the University.

Cass Tech’s student body is 95 percent black. The school usually sends more than 40 underrepresented minority students to the University each year. This is largely due to the school’s high academic standards as well as intensive recruiting efforts by Winfrey and his staff. The school offers 11 advanced placement courses and requires students to maintain a 2.5 grade point average to stay enrolled.

Affirmative action in action

Because many of Cass Tech’s seniors are academically qualified to attend the University, quantifying just how much of an impact affirmative action admissions policies have on the number of Technicians admitted is nearly impossible, said Chris Lucier, associate director of admissions. He added that this is especially true given that the University’s holistic admissions review process considers a variety of factors other than race.

“I think that’s a misunderstanding of the process to say that (admissions officials) say, ‘Because of this factor, this student is admitted,’ ” he said.

He explained that application reviewers look not only at race and academic scores but at whether applicants are from a single-parent home, have overcome a significant obstacle in their lives or are the first generation of their families to attend college.

Out of the 25,000 applications submitted to the University each year, about 23,500 are from high school seniors that are academically qualified to attend, said Lucier. The challenge is selecting about 5,000 of those applicants who will best contribute to the campus community.

Once reviewers establish that a candidate is able to succeed academically at the University, they then consider what a student could bring to a diverse campus community based on their life experiences. This, Lucier said, is where affirmative action comes into play.

Lucier said that a misunderstanding of the admissions process, coupled with fallout from the 2003 lawsuits in which the Supreme Court upheld the University’s use of racial preference in admissions, led to the stereotype that all black students were admitted because of affirmative action policies.

Black students admitted to the University “have academic records that are as strong, if not stronger, than the person next to them in their classroom or their residence hall room,” he said.

Still, it is undeniable that some students are chosen over others based partly on their racial identity.

University Spokeswoman Julie Peterson said part of the rationale behind race-conscious policies is that considering race in admissions helps the relatively few underrepresented minority applicants from drowning in a sea of white applicants.

“If we didn’t have a race-conscious process, the sheer mathematics of it would mean that the applications from minority students would be drowned out by those from majority students, and therefore very few minority students would be admitted,” she said.

Opponents of the ballot measure say affirmative action is necessary because it extends equal opportunities to minorities who otherwise would not have adequate access to public higher education and employment. But MCRI supporters say practices like the University’s admissions policies constitute a violation of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law to all citizens regardless of race.

What all this means for some University recruitment programs that focus on underrepresented minorities – the programs that allow Winfrey and other recruiters to maintain an almost daily presence in schools like Cass Tech – is still up in the air. According to Peterson, exactly which recruitment programs would have to be terminated could only be determined via the inevitable lawsuits that would occur if Michigan voters approve MCRI on Nov. 7.

“We can predict a fair amount of litigation,” she said. “People would be suing, defending programs.”

Still, MCRI proponents argue race should not be considered even in recruiting.

“I don’t think universities should be targeting anyone based on their skin color. If they want to target people, they should be targeting based on grades,” said Jennifer Gratz, executive director of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, the organization behind the ballot measure of the same name.

However, Gratz, who was the plaintiff in the 2003 Supreme Court case Gratz v. Bollinger, said universities should be able to target underperforming high schools or areas with low socioeconomic status.

The California story

According to various scholarly studies on the subject, MCRI could have effects similar to those of Proposition 209, an anti-affirmative action law passed by California’s voters in 1996. After the full implementation of the law in 1998, the percentage of underrepresented minorities admitted as freshmen to the University of California-Berkeley was cut in half, falling from 23 percent in 1997 to 11 percent in 1998.

Peterson said the University’s undergraduate minority percentage has hovered around 14 percent for the past several years, but experts say if admissions officials were forced to abandon race-conscious policies, minority enrollment could drop below 5 percent.

Proposition 209 also had a wide-ranging effect on UC-Berkeley’s recruiters, who had to scrap several day-long programs for minorities, specifically a Chicano-Latino recruitment seminar.

Walter Robinson, director of admissions at UC-Berkeley, said California’s law has limited his office’s ability to recruit qualified minority candidates.

“It’s a lot more expensive, we have to cast a wider net,” he said. “It’s difficult to explain why we went to a school that had a high number of black minorities and not another that had highly qualified applicants.”

To reach minority students without being accused of granting racial preference, his staff has had to double the number of high school and college fair visits made by its recruitment staff, taxing both financial and human resources in the department.

“If I were able to have targeted recruitment, I could pick and choose where I’d want to go,” he said.

According to Robinson, UC-Berkeley still receives ample applications from high-achieving minorities similar to the students at Cass Tech. The school is also still able to attract and admit minorities from low socio-economic backgrounds. It’s the minorities in the middle who are most hurt, he said.

“The sons and daughters of people like me will not be targeted by Cal and schools like Cal because of Prop 209 unless they are superior students in every other way,” said Robinson, who is black.

Farewell affirmative financial aid?

Peterson also voiced concerns that MCRI might damage the University’s ability to use financial aid to lure minority students to campus.

“It’s possible that financial aid programs that have race and ethnicity or gender as one component could be at risk or challenged,” she said, adding that financial aid is particularly important in recruiting minorities because some studies suggest minority families are more hesitant to take out loans for fear that they might not be able to pay them back.

She also pointed out that many minority students admitted are also accepted to other highly selective institutions, such as Ivy League schools. These institutions, she said, have “deeper pockets,” and if financial aid officials were not allowed to offer scholarships for specific minority groups, private schools might be able to outbid the University.

Under MCRI, racially targeted scholarships using public monies would not be allowed, said Diane Schachterle, director of public affairs for the American Civil Rights Coalition, an organization which supports the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. Schachterle also said private scholarships for specific minorities would not be affected by MCRI.

After November
Experts say minority enrollment will plummet if Michigan voters approve MCRI. Here’s a look at the numbers

Current undergraduate minority enrollment: 14%

Predicted minority enrollment under race-neutral admissions policy: 5%

SOURCE: EXPERT witness testimony from 2003 Supreme court case

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