Remarks to the Jewish Federation of Detroit
September 3, 2003
Thank you, John, for that introduction. And I want to thank Comerica for sponsoring events such as this, which connect Comerica to the social concerns of our community. I am deeply honored to have been invited here to address you.
This is an inspiring time of year to be on our campus. I know you are about to celebrate your New Year, and for college campuses, this also marks the beginning of our own year.
Last week, I had the privilege of addressing 5400 new freshman and their parents on one day, then the next morning I spoke to the new graduate students. On another day, I met with the new faculty on our campus.
It was like watching the cycle of life. I could not believe how very mature the new graduate students appeared to be—those four years of college really do transform our students into responsible and thoughtful young adults.
If any of you have children or family members who choose to attend the University of Michigan in the future—and I know you will!—I hope you will attend an opening ceremony. The hope and the joy—and even the parents’ sadness—is a wonderful affirmation of the depth of our aspirations and our connections to one another.
For me, another pleasure is visiting organizations in our state such as yours. It reminds me about the many connections of the University of Michigan to our regional community.
During the past year, I have learned a great deal about the support of the Jewish Federation of Detroit toward the University of Michigan. It is wonderful to see the exceptional pride you take in our University.
And I greatly appreciate the many ways that you express your support for us. Many of you in this room, and others who are not here, have helped us by sending your children to us for their college experience, by providing financial support, and by offering leadership on educational and social issues.
I want to highlight two of the programs at the University that exemplify the support that has come to us through the Foundation and the Jewish community.
One is the Sol Drachler Program on Jewish community leadership in our School of Social Work, which has prepared many students for significant leadership positions in the national and international Jewish community. In fact, I just met four of the outstanding graduates of that program, who are here today! The Sol Drachler Program allows us to provide a valuable education to our students in the School of Social Work; they in turn make wonderful contributions to their communities through their expertise.
We also thank you for our Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, which is one of the leading centers of Judaic Studies in our country. Thank you, Stan, for helping establish this program.
We also are so proud of the many students and faculty who have worked on projects in Israel in conjunction with support from the Federation and many of you.
I am sorry that your president, Bob Aronson, could not be here today. He has been a brilliant agent of collaboration between the Jewish community and our University.
I want to thank him, and all of you who have worked with him on behalf of the University of Michigan. Two members of the audience, Doreen Hermenlin and Joel Tauber, have even offered their homes for receptions for our alumni, which is a wonderful way for us to remain in contact with our extended Michigan family.
I was asked to talk about the issue of affirmative action and the cases our University argued before the Supreme Court this past year.
It was an extraordinary experience, and this is the first time I have had the opportunity to speak in public both about the cases and our new admissions policy that was unveiled last week.
Before I launch into my discussion about the cases, I want to recognize the architect of our defense, Marvin Krislov.
Marvin is the general counsel and a vice president at the University of Michigan, and he provided us with a considerable amount of wisdom about the issues we faced.
Some of you might know him better as the co-chair of the Washtenaw County Jewish Federation Campaign for the past two years. We are all very fortunate that he has been so generous with his time and his insights.
The issue of affirmative action does not stand alone. It is linked to many other challenges that we are facing in our society and at our universities.
Higher education is facing some critical issues now, and they are likely to become more problematic in the next few years.
The demographics in our country are changing rapidly. Higher education is viewed as ever more valuable by individuals and pressure on admission to the most selective institutions is bound to increase in decades to come.
Some of you may have seen an article and an editorial that appeared in The New York Times in the past two weeks. Those two pieces expressed a concern that all the leaders of public institutions are discussing.
In summary, the Times addressed the issue of the decline of state funding and the inevitable decline of the excellence of public universities as a consequence of restricted funding.
Fortunately, at the University of Michigan, we have been able to absorb the worst cuts seen in two decades without imposing a significant impact on our academic programs. But as all of you know, our state still has a significant economic problem, and it is likely to affect our budget for the next academic year as well.
We are all extremely fortunate to have one of the nations best public research universities in this state.
We did not become a leading university by accident. This state committed to a concept known as the “Michigan Experiment”—creating an outstanding public university that was the equivalent of the great private universities in this country.
The early leaders of our University took risks by including “untraditional” areas such as applied science when the university was originally designed. But their vision turned out to be exactly the vision that our country needed, and established us as a leader of innovation in research and teaching.
We still reap the harvest of the seeds that were sown almost 200 years ago—many departments at the University of Michigan now often appear in the top five and top ten rankings of all universities. We take pride in having one of the top academic medical centers in the country because of that early vision.
So we will advocate for a level of funding that will continue to allow the University of Michigan to remain one of the great universities in this country.
We cannot stand by and allow the leading public universities to become second-rank institutions. If the only great universities remaining are the more expensive private universities, we will be moving to a new and divisive class system in which only the wealthy will freely have access to an excellent education.
We must have outstanding public universities as well—both for reasons of access to students from all economic backgrounds and because the private universities cannot possibly accommodate the vast numbers of students who are seeking the advantages of higher education. Our elected officials need to hear from all of us, not just from the universities, on this issue.
In addition to providing an exceptional educational experience, our universities sometimes are called upon to deal with social issues. One of my colleagues, President Gordon Gee of Vanderbilt University, has noted that universities are instruments of great good in our society, and he has linked that premise to the concept of tikkun olam. Where we can see a fracture in our society and can apply a remedy, it is our responsibility to help by doing so.
And that is what impels universities in particular to stand at the forefront of the issue of affirmative action. We can provide a community that advances the knowledge and social interaction of all students.
Our goal is to build strength by building a diverse community of the most highly qualified students in our state and country.
We must find effective ways to reflect the full diversity of the nation on our campuses. How will our universities respond to the multiple challenges we face? A significant principle on which we have long relied is that our universities do have the special expertise that is necessary to make critical judgments about building our own campus communities.
That was one of the most important outcomes of the recent Supreme Court decisions, which have more clearly articulated and upheld the policies of affirmative action. I want to talk about those cases for a few minutes, and also to talk about the challenges that face us regarding the decisions the Supreme Court issued. One of the great privileges of my professional career has been to lead the University of Michigan during the final year of the lawsuits related to our admissions policies.
Our highest commitment is to recruiting a class of academically exceptional students.
Like all highly selective universities, every year, we have far more well-qualified applicants than we can accept.
As you know, we have used consideration of race as one of many factors we take into account in determining admissions to our programs at the university.
As acknowledged in a friend-of-the-court brief from the American Jewish Committee and a number of other organizations, however, we do not use quotas or set-asides. I know the Jewish community has a particular sensitivity to the issue of quotas, given the history of the “Jewish quotas” that were in place at selective private institutions in the 20th century.
But the University of Michigan always welcomed students of the Jewish faith during that era. And now, we want to be sure that all students have the opportunity to demonstrate what they would contribute to a diverse student body.
We do this because we have found no other effective way to remain highly selective and diverse.
As you know, six years ago, two lawsuits were filed against the admissions policies of the University of Michigan.
Our institution committed to a vigorous defense of our right to preserve the use of affirmative action in our admissions processes for undergraduate and law students. This is a principle that the institution has been willing to uphold because it is our pledge to create a broadly diverse university community, precisely because the educational benefits of such a community are so positive for all of our students.
When I arrived on campus, we had prevailed in the lower courts in both cases. In December of last year, the Supreme Court announced that it was going to hear an appeal of our admissions cases.
This was an extraordinary event to experience in my first year at Michigan, and one that most university presidents never confront.
One of the great pleasures and perhaps unexpected interaction of this first year has been my discovery of the depth of commitment from many areas of society on this issue. Corporate, educational, and social organizations lined up to publicly support our position with amicus briefs that were filed with the Supreme Court.
I have to thank the Jewish community particularly for the support that was provided by groups such as the American Jewish Committee, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, National Council of Jewish Women, Progressive Jewish Alliance, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Women of Reformed Judaism, and the Federation of Temple Sisterhoods—all of which joined a brief before the Supreme Court in support of the University.
We are very grateful for these official statements of support for our position. We often looked to the amicus briefs for moral support during the final phase of the lawsuits, and we derived great strength from these words in the brief filed by the American Jewish Committee:
“This country should strive for the day when we are what we ought to be—diverse and equal. Until that time, race really does matter, and public universities should be permitted to consider race as one of a number of factors taken into account in their admissions programs in order to achieve the compelling state interest of diversity in higher education.”
I cannot tell you how much we appreciated those powerful words from the American Jewish Committee.
During the past few months, I have learned more about the Court than I ever imagined. We responded to a direct challenge from the sitting U.S. President, we coordinated a deluge of amicus briefs, we listened to rumors about the Court. Then, we were able to hear the oral arguments at the Court. Finally, Marvin and I were at the Court on decision day.
I was unprepared for how emotional and joyous the day of the decisions would be. By sheer chance, I was in Washington, D.C. that day to deliver a speech at the National Institutes of Health, and was able to be at the Court at the time the decisions were announced.
That was an historic day in the life of our university, and in the life of our country. I am deeply honored to have been part of the process.
I have also become an ardent fan of Justice O’Connor, who wrote the majority decision in one of our cases. I strongly recommend her recent book, The Majesty of the Law.
She reminds us that many of our most cherished rights emerged from re-interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, many of which occurred in the latter half of the 20th century. And she makes the persuasive case that it is the possibility of re-interpretation in the social context of our nation that makes our democracy so vibrant and strong.
The strong affirmation in these two decisions of a compelling state interest in diversity has put processes used at many universities on a very sound footing. At Michigan, as at most highly selective institutions, affirmative action in admissions is critical.
At virtually all colleges and universities, affirmative action is important in financial aid, outreach, mentorship, and recruitment programs. But the positive outcome of our cases is only the first step.
We are renewing our commitment to learning with, and learning from, diverse others every day, in every action, in every classroom, in every living arrangement, in every research and public service endeavor.
We have worked intensively over the past two months to redesign our admissions processes, and made them available for the first time last Thursday. I am sure that some of you have children or grandchildren who have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to apply for admission in Autumn 2004, and now all the forms are available on our Website.
I want to stress one point above all.
Always, before the decisions and now,after the decisions, our primary concern has been to identify students who are highly academically qualified.
We always have more applicants who are highly qualified than we can possibly accommodate on our campus. Once we have assembled the large pool of highly qualified students, we will then start the process of putting together a class of diverse talents and backgrounds—we want students who can play the oboe, students from the Upper Peninsula, and students from a diverse set of social, educational, and economic backgrounds.
What the Supreme Court decisions will allow us to do is to take race into account in addition to the many, many other factors that will be part of our decision-making process.
But now we have another new challenge, a challenge with a putative timeline.
Justice O’Connor wrote into her decision the hope that within 25 years, the current policies of affirmative action might no longer be necessary. While this is not a firm deadline, we can certainly expect to see a considerable amount of controversy and discussion about that line in the sands of time.
The nation is looking to the University of Michigan on this issue, and we are aware of the privilege as well as the responsibility of the role we have assumed.
We are interpreting the newest Supreme Court decisions within the law, and in a way that will allow us to create broadly diverse institutions, that will continue to diversify all professions and regions of our country.
But the nation will also be looking to all of higher education to create policies that will move us toward a time when affirmative action, as we know it, will no longer be necessary.
In order to meet this ambitious goal, however, every institution in society—at every level—has to play a part. We all have expertise to contribute, and we all have a role to play. The Supreme Court recognized that higher education is the gateway to opportunity in so many fields of endeavor and to so many of society’s institutions. But we cannot ensure equality of opportunity alone or in isolation.
The diverse coalition of organizations, institutions and individuals that stood together in front of the Supreme Court must now work together to develop creative solutions to the challenges that lie before us.
We will again need to turn to the activism of all sectors of society in order to work toward the day when affirmative action will no longer be necessary.
We all must work to ensure that the educational opportunities of the K–12 system are improved dramatically. We will need powerful voices from every field and profession—and we must find a way to harness that power in support of the K–12 systems as well as higher education.
We have a moral imperative to reach out to more students from low socio-economic backgrounds—so often, we tend to focus on schools where we expect students to apply to us.
If we are going to increase our pool of minority students and students from a disadvantaged economic background, we will need help to reach out to new communities and schools that will provide academically qualified applicants.
Some of the efforts I described earlier will provide a good start, but we will want to do everything possible to extend our current outreach activities.
We have a great responsibility to provide the best possible education to our students, and to deal with the larger issues that we might be able to help rectify.
I hope I have been able to provide you with an overview of our concerns and our ambitions.
Before I conclude, I want to wish you a Happy New Year, and a good year to all of you and all of us.
Thank you very much for allowing me to speak with you today.
Now, I look forward to your questions.