Mixed Success for U. of Michigan on Diversity

Since the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, the University of Michigan has made great efforts to attract minority students. While proportionally, minority students are now back where they were before the ruling, diversity on the Ann Arbor Campus is still below what many critics say it should be.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. In this week that people remember Coretta Scott King, we're tracking a story that shows the complexity of the debate over race in America. We've been following the effects of Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action.

MONTAGNE: Two and a half years ago, the court considered affirmative action on college campuses. It said colleges may sometimes factor in race when deciding which students to admit. But it rejected a policy that awarded extra points to minority applicants. Afterward, applications from blacks and Hispanics plummeted at many campuses, including the school at the center of the cases, the University of Michigan.

INSKEEP: Since then, the university president has waged a personal campaign to get those numbers back up. Today, the university is claiming success, though it also faces a new challenge to affirmative action.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

It's Sunday morning and standing room only at Harford Memorial Baptist Church, considered the largest, most influential black church in Detroit, if not Michigan.

(Soundbite of a woman singing)

SANCHEZ: A young soprano's voice fills the enormous building. The pews overflow with men in dark suits and women wearing elegant hats. A few rows from the front, a white, middle-aged woman in bright pink suit, back straight, palms in her lap, waits to be introduced by the senior minister here, Dr. Charles G. Adams.

Doctor CHARLES G. ADAMS (senior minister, Hartford Memorial Baptist Church): She is the greatest university president in the world. Dr. Mary Sue Coleman, who has found a way in these dark and difficult days when affirmative action has been whittled down, she has found a way to see that not only is minority enrollment going on, but it is getting better. Dr. Mary Sue Coleman.

(Soundbite of applause)

SANCHEZ: Coleman takes the pulpit with some good news to share: black applications and enrollment are up. African-Americans now make up nearly eight percent of the 25,000 undergraduate students at Michigan.

Doctor MARY SUE COLEMAN (President, University of Michigan): America's system of higher education is the envy of the world. If we are leaving behind talented black students, talented women, talented Latinos, Native Americans, we are abandoning this country's future, and I will not allow that to happen at the University of Michigan.

(Soundbite of applause)

SANCHEZ: The biggest threat out there, Coleman warns, is a measure on the November ballot called The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. It will give voters a chance to decide whether race should be banned entirely from college admissions and government hiring.

Dr. COLEMAN: We must pay attention to race. If we look away, the future is bleak.

SANCHEZ: The people of Michigan will decide, Coleman says, but the University of Michigan will do its part to raise minority enrollment no matter what. For Coleman, this is not an empty promise.

Unidentified Man: Good afternoon, everyone.

Group: Good afternoon.

Unidentified Man: Good afternoon, everyone.

Group: Good afternoon.

Unidentified Man: Everybody say, code blue.

Group: Code blue.

Unidentified Man: Everybody say, code blue.

Group: Code blue.

SANCHEZ: With the help of black alumni, Coleman has launched the most ambitious minority recruitment campaign in the university's history. This fall, Michigan only had room for 5,500 freshmen. Over 20,000 applied, and therein lies the dilemma, says Coleman: a limited number of seats at a selective institution, and a desire for a racially diverse student body.

Dr. COLEMAN: And so what our admissions people are doing is trying to build a class that is diverse in many, many aspects: race, gender, field of study, talent, you name it, life experiences.

SANCHEZ: In her spacious but modest office on campus, Coleman is relaxed, but just as passionate as she was from the pulpit.

Dr. COLEMAN: Everybody instantly assumes that if I didn't get in, if I'm white, if I didn't get in, it's because some minority took my spot. And 98 percent of the cases, another white person took that spot.

SANCHEZ: Coleman says there's absolutely no evidence that black and Latino students on the University of Michigan campus are not academically qualified.

Mr. WARD CONNERLY (Founder and Chairman, American Civil Rights Institute): Well, they may be or they may not be but that's not the point. The question is, are they as eligible, are they as competitive as some of those who are being turned away, regardless of skin color?

SANCHEZ: That's Ward Connerly; the man behind the effort to ban race entirely from college admissions and government hiring in Michigan.

Mr. CONNERLY: Look, the question that is out there hovering over every higher education institution in the country is, why do you consider yourself exempt from the edict that the government should not discriminate against its citizens on the basis of their skin color, or the size of their lips, or the width of their nose, or whatever.

I happen to believe that discrimination on the basis of race is morally wrong. Mary Sue Coleman can call it whatever she wants, but the fact of the matter is that they're practicing race discrimination.

SANCHEZ: If that was true, says Coleman, the University of Michigan would be back in court.

Dr. COLEMAN: What the Supreme Court said to us is there's a compelling, national interest in having a diverse classroom. And for that reason, we're permitted, in a holistic review of the applicant, to use race as one of many factors.

Mr. CONNERLY: That's right. She's right.

SANCHEZ: Again, Ward Connerly.

Mr. CONNERLY: But the court also said that if the people of Michigan say, we don't want Mary Sue Coleman having the right to discriminate, not withstanding what the court gave that institution, the people of that state have the right to assert themselves.

SANCHEZ: Just like they have in Washington State and California, where Connerly began his campaign against Affirmative Action ten years ago with Proposition 209.

Mr. CONNERLY: California did not fall off the face of the earth when 209 was passed. We still have people who are black and Latino at the University of California. The difference is that we don't have as many quote, "underrepresented minorities," close quote, at the more select institutions, such as Berkeley and UCLA.

Does the University of California discriminate against black people? No fool would believe that. Then why are so few being admitted? Because there're not enough of them who are academically competitive.

(Soundbite of people chanting)

SANCHEZ: Aside from tiny protests on campus like this one, organized by outside activists, the mission and civil rights initiative has not gotten a lot of attention on the Ann Arbor campus.

Minority students I spoke with, in fact, worry that the debate over race in admissions misses a bigger problem, the way blacks and Latinos are treated once they're here.

Sashi Alvarez(ph), 21, is a senior.

Ms. SASHI ALVAREZ: I'm tired of feeling like I'm a minority. I know I'm a minority. Having to represent the whole Latino community at the University of Michigan is not something that I signed up to do, and when you come to Michigan you feel that from professors, from your peers, from a lot of people.

SANCHEZ: So, for all the talk of diversity, says Alvarez, latinos and blacks on campus feel like they've been recruited just for show. Last week, black engineering students, in fact, filed a discrimination complaint with the United States Education Department's Office of Civil Rights, alleging that some professors discourage minority students from pursuing advanced degrees, and that the University has not given them enough academic or financial support to allow them to graduate.

Timothy Wiggins, a junior, says that view is more widespread than University officials think.

Mr. TIMOTHY WIGGINS: There's no integration. There's no working together on this campus. There's clearly a divide that you see on this campus when you come here.

SANCHEZ: President Coleman says she can't discuss the black students' complaint, but concedes that as long as race is a factor in admissions, some people will question whether minority students belong here.

Dr. COLEMAN: I don't want to pretend like, that somehow, because we've created this very diverse environment on campus, that everything is honky dory.

SANCHEZ: It's not. And it can get pretty messy and uncomfortable for everyone, says Coleman. But that's not going to keep her from defending the use of race in Michigan's admissions policies, yet again.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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