President Mary Sue Colemans Address to the American Council on Education
February 17, 2003
Tomorrow the University of Michigan will file its briefs in the two admissions lawsuits now before the Supreme Court. We will be joined by over 300 organizations filing more than 60 amicus briefs in support of the University. This might well turn out to be the largest number of briefs ever filed in the history of the Court on a single issue.
It is an unprecedented flood that speaks volumes about the importance and the far-reaching impact of this upcoming decision. I am encouraged to see such overwhelming support from every major segment of society, including the corporate community and the United States military.
We are at a critical crossroads in American life. Today I want to explore what is at stake not just for Michigan but for all of higher education, and what is at stake for the United States if we turn away from a fundamental principle that has worked well for 25 years.
The debate over the landmark 1978 Supreme Court decision called The University of California Board of Regents vs. Bakke is a debate about the future direction of this country. The Bakke decision has served as a fair and effective guidepost to help our nations campuses reflect the diversity of American society; yet its impact has reached far beyond the classroom into virtually every sector of the nation.
Before I continue, let me thank the American Council on Education, and president David Ward in particular, for inviting me to address you this afternoon and for filing an amicus brief in support of our policies on behalf of more than 50 higher education associations across the country. It is a privilege to join Augie, Britt and Lee.
And although many of those filing amicus briefs cannot be with us today because of the winter storm, I want to give you a sense of who they are: They represent universities, faculty, and more than 13,000 law students across the country; over 60 Fortune 500 corporations; the AFL-CIO, the UAW and the NEA; the American Bar Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges; dozens of civil rights and religious organizations; 16 states; many members of Congress; and more than 2 dozen high-ranking military and civilian defense officials.
Obviously, there is a broad and deep consensus among this nations major institutions: our ability to be strong relies on our ability to seek diversity.
I want to talk a bit about the specifics of the cases we will present to the Supreme Court in defense of our admissions policies in both the undergraduate college and at the law school.
Our arguments begin with Bakke. Heres what that decision said: quotas and set asides are illegal, but diversity in the college classroom is so compelling that race may indeed be considered as one of many factors in a competitive review process. Our briefs lay out the facts about the University of Michigans policies at both at the undergraduate school and at the law school, and demonstrate that those policies comply with the guidelines provided by the Supreme Court in 1978:
- Each student competes for every seatthere are not separate systems for majority and minority applicants.
- We do not havenor have we ever hadquotas or numerical targets.
- Each student is considered individually, and every applicants qualifications are weighed fairly and competitively.
Because we are a highly selective institution, we consider academic performance most heavily in our admissions decisions. We give the greatest weight to grade point average since we feel it is the best indicator of future academic performance, and in addition we look at the strength of the high school, difficulty of curriculum, and performance on standardized tests.
Lately we have heard a few characterizations of our undergraduate system highlighting what might seem like a relatively low weight for SAT scores in comparison to other factors.
Our admissions director Ted Spencer likes to say: we give students far more credit for what they do in four years than what they do in four hours.
Grades matter most.
In addition to academics we consider a variety of factors including race and ethnic origin, socioeconomic status, alumni connections, geography, athletic ability, and special talents.
Make no mistake. Every student who is admitted to the University of Michigan is fully qualified and fully expected to succeed. We are both blessed and challenged by the fact that we have many more qualified applicants than we can accept. At the undergraduate level this past year, we received more than 25,000 applications for about 5,000 seats. At the law school it was over 5,000 applications for 350 seats. So our very difficult job is to choose among all those qualified students, building a class that is vibrant and richly diverse in all ways.
Men and women
All races and ethnic origins
Engineers and artists
Young people who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds
Those who are the first in their families to attend college and those whose great grandparents proudly sing the alma mater
Students from Detroit and from Michigans rural upper peninsula,
Those from the Big Apple and the Big Easy, from the Windy City and the City of Angels
And those who demonstrate a remarkable talent or those whose applications point to special promise.
Yes, we consider race in choosing our entering class each year, and we consider a host of other factors as well. Our policies are moderate, fair and carefully considered, and designed to achieve the diversity we feel is critical without jeopardizing our high academic standards or creating disadvantage for other important factors. Each of the students admitted to Michigan is smart and capable, and each brings special life experiences to create a dynamic learning environment that is one of the best in the world.
Nearly everyone in this room is an educator and many of you have spent years teaching undergraduate and graduate students. What Im going to say next is something we long have known to be true from our own experience. Now we have developed an impressive record of social science research that demonstrates the positive educational outcomes linked with diverse class environments.
Students learn better in a diverse class. They are more analytical, and more engaged. The teaching environment is more enlightening. The discussion is livelier and more representative of real-world issues. These students are more open to perspectives that differ from their own and they are better prepared to become active participants in our society.
Most people recognize the value of having students of different races and ethnic origins live and learn together.
However, where our country is divided is how best to achieve educational diversity.
The very heart of the debate is clear: the Supreme Court will consider whether race can ever be taken into account in the college admissions process. The plaintiffs in these cases oppose the two different admissions policies used at Michigans undergraduate and law schools, policies with characteristics similar to those used by most other selective universities in the United States. Fundamentally, the plaintiffs oppose any consideration of race in college admissions decisions.
It is Bakke itself that is being challenged.
If the Court were to overturn the 1978 decision, I believe the effects would be devastating for public higher education.
And because Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act extends the same standards to all institutions receiving federal funding, the decision in this case will bind private universities as well as public. Some of our nations most selective private institutionsHarvard, MIT, Stanford, Cornell, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, Rice and othersare filing individual briefs because they believe, as we do, that reversing the path charted in Bakke would force them to choose between academic pre-eminence and very substantial re-segregation.
Consider this: for 25 years Bakke has worked well in enabling the nations universitiesespecially the most selective of those such as the University of Michiganto build both a diverse and highly-qualified student body. With Bakke, we achieve diversity without sacrificing academic standards. In fact, we believe that the underlying principle of the Bakke decision has become an important part of our national culture.
A change in direction would represent a shift in longstanding law and federal policy on which virtually all of us in higher education have relied in designing admissions standards, financial aid policies, and other race-conscious outreach and retention programs.
Without Bakke, I fear selective universities in most parts of the country would re-segregate. The most highly-selective professional schools would lose decades of progress in educating more racially diverse ranks of doctors, lawyers and CEOs. Hundreds of college admissions processes likely would be deemed unconstitutional. Many financial aid and scholarship programs might cease to exist, as would mentoring, outreach, and enrichment programs of great benefit to our students.
All of these ripple effects must be seen against the backdrop of a society still deeply troubled by issues of race. Our cities and our neighborhoods are more segregated than ever before. Many students come to our universities never having had meaningful interactions with those of a different race.
A great deal hangs in the balance right here, right now.
President Bush suggested a few weeks ago that higher education should create so-called race-neutral alternatives such as the percent plan implemented in Texas. But I believe there are no viable, race-neutral alternatives that would work for Michigan, or for many of our institutions, at this time.
The percentage plans adopted in Texas, Florida, and California are not a panacea. Keep in mind they were adopted at the point of a sword, in order to stave off the dramatic decline of classroom diversity after the lossor the anticipated lossof affirmative action policies in those states.
Recent studies from the Harvard Civil Rights Project report that those systems have serious flaws.
The most troubling aspect is that they rely on a segregated K-12 system. We dare notwe must notcreate public policy that works only if our countrys school systems remain segregated.
Also, they will not work without targeted financial aid programs where income or other factors have simply become a proxy for race.
Certainly, we know that percent plans are not one size fit all.
They are not working at the graduate and professional school level,
They will not address the needs of universities that recruit nationally,
And they will not work for autonomous colleges that are not part of a statewide system
If these plans are the only options, the consequences for higher education will be negativenot neutral. Our nations struggle to integrate classrooms is not ancient history, it is a modern day reality.
And believing that we can ignore race might be wishful thinking but it is not real life.
Americas system of higher education is the envy of the world. In fact, the excellence and the breadth of higher education is one of Americas greatest competitive advantages in a global marketplace. Thats what over 60 of our nations leading companies filing an amicus brief tomorrow tell us. Companies like General Motors. Boeing. Merck. Bank One. Microsoft. Shell Oil. American Express. And it is what other amicus filers, such as the AFL-CIO, tell us as well.
We educate a well-prepared, diverse workforce. The country relies on it to power our economic engine. Students who learn in diverse classrooms know how to take that cross-cultural understanding into Americas industries. The corporations supporting our position recruit thousands of their employees from the University of Michigan and other major universities. They have a vested interest in our ability to attract and retain a highly-qualified and richly diverse student body who will become leaders in our global economy. Their bottom lines depend on it.
Finally, I want to call your attention to a riveting friend of the court brief that will be filed with the Supreme Court tomorrowone that touches at the very heart of our national defense.
More than two dozen distinguished former military and civilian defense leadersmany of them four star generalswill ask the court to consider how the outcome of these cases could affect the diversity of our nations officer corps and, in turn, the militarys ability to protect our national security.
All three United States military academies have admissions programs that take race into account not unlike the ones at issue in the Michigan cases. And in addition, all the branches of the military depend on ROTC graduates from our universities. In fact, ROTC programs produce nearly 50 percent of Americas active duty officers while the military academies account for about 25 percent of the officer corps.
A diverse corps of officers is essential to command our diverse enlisted ranks.
We learned that lesson the hard way.
During the Vietnam era, longstanding racial tensions in the military became a racial crisis. The officer corps was overwhelmingly white but the enlisted ranks were racially diverse. The officers could not effectively address problems or establish cohesion, and the situation triggered hundreds of race-related incidents. It fueled a breakdown of order that was dangerous, destructive, and that endangered the militarys ability to do its job.
Today the military works hard to ensure diversity throughout the officer corps. Minorities make up roughly 40 percent of the enlisted ranks and 19 percent of all officers. We have made great strides, but the branches are still concerned about the gap in representation between enlisted ranks and officers. The military expends enormous effort and resources to identify, attract and train the best qualified minority candidates. The Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines rely on the ability to take race into account in our ROTC programs and at their highly selective service academies.
This case is not about college admissions policies alone. Nor is it simply about important matters of constitutional law. It touches every major sector of our country, and the outcome will influence the direction of Americas public policy.
Our classrooms and campuses.
Our economic effectiveness.
Our military strength.
We simply cannot handcuff our countrys major institutions in their efforts to seek both quality and diversity. We are asking the United States Supreme Court not to turn back the clock, because our country depends on the education and the integration that we worked so hard as a nation to achieve and that in many ways defines our greatness as a society.