As court hears challenge to use of race in admissions, experts point to cases such as University of Michigans declining black student population as cautionary tale
In late 2013, student frustration at the University of Michigan over the decline in the schools black student population boiled over, when activists launched the Being Black at the University of Michigan (BBUM) campaign. Black enrollment at the institution has dropped from 7% in 2006 to about 4.5% this year.
And despite race-neutral efforts to recruit minorities, African American students on campus say the schools recruitment of minorities has fallen short since the state banned affirmative action through a ballot initiative in 2006.
As the US supreme court considers a challenge to the use of race in admissions Wednesday, academics and experts are pointing to the University of Michigan as an example of the challenges of admissions without consideration of race.
The Universitys nearly decade-long experiment in race-neutral admissions … is a cautionary tale that underscores the compelling need for selective universities to be able to consider race as one of many background factors about applicants, asserted a brief filed by the university.
The case the justices will hear Wednesday involves a years-long challenge by Abigail Fisher, a white student from Texas who was denied admission to the state universitys Austin campus in 2008. Fisher has argued the universitys policy of considering race in its admissions policy violates the Constitutions equal protection clause.
The supreme court has several options in the Fisher case, but potential gutting of affirmative action laws in public universities has observers concerned, especially with a brimming civil rights lawsuit filed earlier this year against Harvard University, which could spell the end of similar policies in private institutions.
If the supreme court were to ban affirmative action under the 14th amendment, the chances are very, very great that, suddenly, the private sector under the civil rights act will also be disabled, said Richard Lempert, a University of Michigan law professor, who also filed a brief in the Fisher case supporting the University of Texas.
As students on a frigid Tuesday morning strolled along the universitys Diag, a main pedestrian walkway that cuts through central campus, some expressed similar concerns about their own states affirmative action ban.
I dont think its helped, said David Wyman, 21, a senior at the university whos majoring in engineering. I think its very bad.
The drop in enrollment has occurred despite efforts by the university to implement race-neutral admissions policies that, officials say, promote diversity. The university said in its brief that it conducts year-round recruiting and outreach campaigns to identify talented students, attends recruiting fairs in areas with substantial minority populations and maintains an office in Detroit to recruit local high school students.
Indeed, this year, UM has witnessed an uptick in the total number of underrepresented minority students in the incoming freshman class.
With increased enrollment, not only will African American students get the education they deserve, but they will be able to do so in a comfortable environment, said Danielle Hunter, treasurer of the universitys Black Student Union. Furthermore, other students of different demographics will be in a more diverse setting, so it will truly be beneficial for everyone.
But many students say they still feel isolated, at a time when protests are erupting around the country over racial tensions on campus.
There have definitely been some strides made, said Brittney Williams, a black 28-year-old sociology major, but the fact that were closing in on a decade after Prop 2 and the university still hasnt quite figured out how to work around it (which is made very clear in enrollment numbers) is disappointing.
Austin McCoy, 35, a black graduate history student, said the campus reflected a vastly different atmosphere from his hometown in central Ohio, with many different nationalities, racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds especially.
But when it came to African American students, I could tell the numbers were pretty low, just through the lack of interactions Id have, or even seeing African American students in the classroom, or my own department, McCoy said over coffee in a downtown Ann Arbor shop.
He said theres a gap of understanding of issues pertaining to racism among black and white students and especially the understanding of diversity. Within his first several years of teaching, McCoy said, his classes only had in total five black students.
The frustration over the decline in UMs black student population reached a tipping point in 2013, when activists launched the BBUM campaign in response to racial tensions ignited by a fraternity party that invited gangsters and attendees back to da hood again.
For McCoy, the social media and protest movement around BBUM occurred as conversations began on how to diversify the history department, he said.
The BBUM situation made us all reflect on our own individual experiences, and thinking of times, like, how I would feel isolated, McCoy said. Or, how I would feel like there were times I didnt totally fit into the department in ways other students would.
To draw additional attention to the concerns, BBUM activists released a set of seven demands to the university, including affordable housing on campus for low-income students, an increase of black representation on campus to 10%, and a new multicultural center on campus to congregate and share our experiences. The university has said it plans to have construction completed on a new center in 2017.
The universitys new president, Mark Schlissel, has been praised by some activists and members of the universitys Black Student Union, as he has made a point to address their concerns. Last month, officials held a campus-wide diversity summit. But the dialogue has to lead to long-term results, students said.
I think its positive to have a conversation around it, Wyman said. But I havent heard a strong commitment by the administration. So Ill believe it when I see it.
A devastating effect
In 2000, Lempert and his colleagues looked back at nearly three decades of data on how affirmative action policies had worked at UM.
He found that minority students who entered the university through the affirmative action policy earned as much over their careers as white students from Michigan.
They also were as contented in their career … as the white students, he said. And they considered significantly more pro bono work. The results were a surprise to Lempert. We knew from other work that we had a lot of success with minorities, he said, but we didnt really think wed come up with a finding of no difference, because these students had been admitted with significantly lower LSAT … points. And they also did worse grade point-wise in school.
Expanded bans have already had some real detrimental effects on universities, Lempert said.
Thats why students like Williams raised concerns when Michigan pushed Prop 2. At the time, Williams worked with the Black Student Union to advise community members on the impact it would have on UM. Years later, she said, problems still persist.
Race is rarely comprehensively discussed often due to the fact that classrooms are so lacking in diversity, she said. So the approach tends to be about educating white folks and making students of color the spokespeople for their race, which is absolutely exhausting.
There is also a lot of resistance from white students to learning about racial issues, and the lack of diversity here accommodates that.
Opponents who argue that students such as Fisher, of Texas, are discriminated against by affirmative action policies fail to understand that some individuals simply have more barriers to overcome in order to attend renowned higher education institutions, students said.
If you are living in a city or rural area where schools are underfunded and you have students who are struggling, like they come from struggling families, and they are also are learning in conditions that arent conducive to learning and excelling, said McCoy, then its going to be tougher for that student to be able to come to a school like the University of Michigan.
The Fisher case was twice upheld by the fifth circuit court of appeals in New Orleans, most recently in July 2014, after the supreme court directed it to examine how the University of Texass policy worked in practice. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself, as she previously was involved in the case as US solicitor general.
If the court guts whats left of race-based admissions after hearing arguments Wednesday, Lempert says it would have a devastating effect on enrollments.
There would be no fallback, no escape valves, he said. It will decrease diversity and integration on our countrys most elite campuses and most selective.