College pamphlets brag about it, university websites stress it, and high school valedictorians constantly emphasize the need for it in their goodbye speeches: diversity. Despite the importance placed on exposing students to different ethnicities, class backgrounds, and life experiences, minority enrollment has plummeted at some public institutions. In just a little over a decade, UCLA has suffered a 57 percent drop in African-American enrollment, reaching its lowest level in more than 30 years. UC Berkeley’s campus has seen a 50 percent decrease in African-American students, an almost two-thirds reduction of Native Americans, and an under-representation of Filipinos, Koreans, and Japanese. University at California Chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau, summarizes the negative implications of these declining minorities, saying California schools are characterized by an atmosphere of “alienation, mistrust, and division.”
Yet, the cause for this sudden drop of ethnic groups and the subsequent uniformity of students on college campuses isn’t part of a voluntary social trend. Rather, in California minorities have been legally banned from receiving preferential treatment in the college admissions process. And now, other states are moving to follow suit.
In November 2006, Michigan voters passed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), a law banning affirmative action both in education and government. The measure, which passed by a margin of 58 percent, bans public institutions from selecting students and workers based on their race, gender, color, ethnicity, and national origin. The legislation echoed California’s Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in 1996 from public California universities and effectively changed the entire ethnic makeup of schools such as UC Berkeley and UCLA. Now, with affirmative action countermeasures effective in Michigan, California, and Washington, many students and activists worry about the risk of losing the voice, as well as numerous contributions of minorities in American universities.
The term “affirmative action” was coined in 1961 by President Kennedy to describe a means of eliminating discrimination that still existed despite the growing civil rights movement. President Johnson then enacted affirmative action policies in 1964, making employers take steps to ensure equality in the workplace and document their efforts in the process. In 1974, the Supreme Court outlawed the use of quota systems in the landmark Bakke case, but nonetheless upheld the validity of affirmative action. As the topic takes the legal stage again, however, it is clear that sentiments have shifted.
The battle in Michigan started 12 years ago, when a white high school graduate in suburban Detroit, Jennifer Gratz, boasted a 3.8 high school GPA, numerous extracurricular activities, and was ranked twelfth in her class. According to her official biography on the MCRI website, she was denied from the University of Michigan despite obvious academic achievements, and cast a lawsuit in 1997 against the university for “using a dual-admissions system with completely different standards depending on one’s race.” She took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the school awarded more points to minorities, and that she was unfairly rejected. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that schools can consider race in selection processes, but cannot give minorities preferential treatment by such methods as granting them extra points on college applications. Gratz vs. Bollinger was the first case of its kind, and it prompted Sandra Day O’Connor to write, “It is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”
The day following the decision, Gratz called Ward Connerly, who served as the former University of California regent and chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute. Described in the New York Times as “a wealthy black Republican,” Connerly was one of the biggest proponents in the move to pass California’s Proposition 209, and perhaps in causing the striking similarities between that and Michigan’s MCRI. He donated $500,000 to the MCRI effort, led to this day by Gratz herself. Gratz has since graduated from University of Michigan at Dearborn.
There are still some ambiguities with the recent referendum. Dr. Henry J. Durand, director of UB’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and Associate Provost at the Center for Academic Development (CAD), points to pieces of the Michigan law that he finds flawed.
Applicants to the University at Michigan are assessed using a point system in which students need to get 100 out of 150 points to be guaranteed acceptance. Before the MCRI, or Proposition 2, 20 points were granted for being a racial or ethnic minority. This was the only point criteria that was outlawed, and the legislation completely ignored the 20 points endowed for applicants falling into categories such as “men in nursing,” “provost’s discretion,” or “scholarship athlete,” as well as the four points available for children of alumni.
“The decision to target only the underrepresented minorities was unfair, since it’s still considered fair to give points for legacy, athletes, or coming from a certain geographic region,” said Durand. “They use the Equal Protection Clause under the fourteenth amendment, which was meant to keep minorities from being discriminated against, and argue that reverse discrimination is a violation of equal protection.” Reverse discrimination refers to the concept that majority groups, typically whites and males, are discriminated against by unfair treatment and biased policies to make up for prior injustices to minorities.
Now in its first semester with the ban in place, the University of Michigan has already seen minority enrollment rates plunge. The Michigan Daily, Ann Arbor’s school paper, reported on February 19 that since Proposition 2 took effect in January, candidates considered “underrepresented minority applicants” saw acceptance rates fall from 12 percent above the national average to six percent below the national average. And although there was a 14 percent increase in minority applications, there was a 16 percent drop in those that were actually accepted. Overall, the University of Michigan’s minority enrollment rate saw a total drop of more than 40 percent for the incoming class.
The Writing on the Wall
The story for public universities across California is similar, and has been ongoing for over a decade. Following the ban of affirmative action, admittance rates in University at California schools dropped 66 percent among African-Americans, 53 percent among Latinos, and 61 percent among Native Americans. To this day, African-Americans make up only three percent of UC freshman classes, and Latino enrollment has remained stagnant despite a growing population.
Despite these figures, it still may be too early to tell how Proposal 2 will permanently affect the admissions process at Michigan. “We have to be cautious about drawing conclusions from preliminary data,” said university spokesperson Kelly Cunningham. “Some of the changes may remain consistent, others may change as the cycle draws to a close in the spring.”
Although University of Michigan at Ann Arbor sophomore Alicia Gillogly says there have been no “drastic changes” since the admissions reform, she recognizes a general sense of worry permeating the campus.
“I don’t think Michigan could be the school that it is without the diversity it currently has. Diversity at any given school is important for attracting incoming students—the more diverse a community, the easier it is for someone to find his or her niche in that community. It also plays a large role in students’ education outside the classroom,” said Gillogly. “I wouldn’t still want to go here if the school becomes homogenous.”
UB’s Melting Pot
Although there are currently no plans to ban affirmative action in New York State, anti-affirmative action sentiment is popping up all around the country. According to the LA Times,Ward Connerly and his coalition are testing the waters in about nine states, and are expected to put the measure on the ballot in three to five states for the November 2008 elections. UB students share mixed feelings about the prospect.
Damian Harris, a Student Assistant in the Intercultural and Diversity Center, a department at UB that tries to bring attention to social justice issues and highlight the assets of diversity through film events, cultural bazaars, and seminars, weighs in his opinion from a personal perspective.
“Being in a minority, you’re not always in a social structure. We don’t have access to certain incomes and that presents roadblocks,” said Harris. “I don’t believe we should do away with affirmative action, preferential treatment always exists with people who donate money and the children of alumni. It just needs to be more inclusive and reach out to low income of all races, not just blacks and Latinos.”
“A lot of times you hear people say, ‘That student was accepted because of affirmative action.’ That needs to be erased, students should be accepted because of potential, not race,” said Grace Lee, another student assistant in the Intercultural and Diversity Center.
Pat Armstrong, the Director of Admissions at UB, insists that the criteria that she and her coworkers look at when selecting prospective students has little to do with their ethnic background, but focuses on individual accomplishment.
“There’s usually a small group of students with academic potential, but [who] are a little under category. We look at their academic record, SAT and ACT scores, rank in class, high school GPA, how they’ve challenged themselves, did they take AP classes, has the student overcome certain family situations,” said Armstrong. “We really don’t look at gender at all, and I can’t say a large consideration goes toward race either. We traditionally try to look at all the factors and the whole person.”
Barbara Burke, Director at the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Affirmative Action, also says UB strives to embody a wide array of people, although her department is focused on diversity in employment rather than the admission process.
“We recruit by outreach. We focus a lot on advertising in publications that might reach underrepresented groups, such as the Organization of Black Engineers or Women in Higher Education,” said Burke. “We do not have quotas, we do not recruit based on race. Rather, we try to reach out to groups such as certain broad economic sectors, first generations, and those with special skills.”
Affirmative action is intrinsically linked to the struggle for racial equality in this nation, and those who see it as a landmark in the civil rights movement are reticent to have it removed. For many students, affirmative action and preferential treatment were a way to escape perilous pasts, make up for centuries of social injustice, and provide an accessible route to education.
“As an African American, I’m hurt,” said freshman communications major India Robinson. “Minorities need extra help—they’ve been disadvantaged in America for years. Whether people like it or not and will admit it or not, there’s an attitude in this country of ‘if you’re white, it’s right.’ It’s bullshit, and I’m tired of the hardship against minorities,”
Similarly, junior social sciences major, Carla Robinson, expresses her outrage that certain groups are being kept in repressive social situations because they’re not given the opportunity to overcome adverse circumstances. “The ban is definitely a bad thing,” she said. “Most of us come from rough communities and want to get out. By taking away affirmative action, people that don’t necessarily have perfect grades won’t be able to get out of their harsh backgrounds.”
UB’s Equal Opportunity Program (EOP) may provide a viable alternative to reach out to underrepresented groups while staying colorblind and avoiding the dispute of reverse discrimination. Indeed, it seems to already be the program that institutions everywhere are scrambling to implement.
Described on its website as a means to “provide an avenue for admission and means of support for talented students who have not reached their full academic potential due to barriers in their educational, economic, or personal background,” EOP is a means of granting access for students who may have been disadvantaged, but are still capable of succeeding. Started in 1967, EOP is a statewide program that has helped thousands of students attend college and obtain a diploma.
“There’s no race component to EOP, we just look at students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said Director Dr. Durand. “We look at students who apply to college, their income level, school and educational background, and overall identity. We interview them, we have them submit a supplemental application, and we determine what they can contribute and whether they can succeed in college.”
According to Durand, EOP provides an avenue for students to get a higher education who may not normally have had the opportunity. The program recognizes that some kids may go to underprivileged schools with weak curricula, and that standardized tests aren’t always the best predictor of a student’s success in college. The result is a membership with diverse ethnicity, and an increased representation of students from rural towns, inner-city areas, and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Only four states currently have a program like EOP.
“A lot of people think that it only helps one type of people. If you go to an EOP meeting, most students are not minorities. It helps everybody,” said Carla Robinson.
Whether or not anti-affirmative action measures have impeded diversity at Michigan remains to be seen. If one thing is for sure, it’s that there is an intense demand for universities to encourage a diverse environment, and that they can avoid a homogenous campus through ways other than affirmative action. For many students in Michigan, as well as at UB and across America, the thought of a monotonous student population is a troubling one.
Student Assistant at the Intercultural and Diversity Center, Damien Harris, shares these regards, “If minorities don’t have access to higher education then we won’t have an interaction with them, and the opportunity to be exposed to different people and take something away from them will be gone.”