“Building on Our Diversity”
Keynote Address, Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science
Oct. 1, 2005
Thank you, Dr. Martinez, for that warm introduction. And thank you to the SACNAS organizers for the invitation to speak to such an energetic audience.
This past week has been extraordinarily busy at the University of Michigan. It is that time in our academic year when hundreds of our freshmen and sophomores — in fact, more than 1,300 of them — are interviewing for research positions with University scientists, physicians and engineers.
Come Monday, these students will begin working in laboratories across campus, contributing to projects that involve medicine, chemistry, biomedical engineering and dozens of other disciplines.
Let me give you a sampling of the projects students were applying for last week:
The reconstruction of a mastodon. For students who love evolutionary biology or the natural sciences, we have a larger-than-life project.
Undergraduates are working with the curator of our Paleontology Museum to make a research-quality copy of a 13,000-year-old mastodon. While our paleontologists are studying the actual bones of this beast, students are helping to create life-size casts of it to display in museums.
And because you never discover the full skeleton of a mastodon, students are using three-dimensional digitization, modeling, and rapid prototyping to re-create the missing pieces.
A second project connects students interested in biomedical engineering with amputees who rely upon prosthetics to walk.
We know that people who use artificial feet for their mobility expend more energy to walk than an able-bodied person. This research at our College of Engineering has students working directly with disabled people, to analyze their gait and measure how much energy they use to walk — with the goal of designing better artificial limbs.
One more project involves mice and muscular dystrophy. Freshmen and sophomores work in our Medical School alongside researchers to understand this debilitating disease. Using engineered mice, students are helping conduct experiments to better comprehend how the disease works at the molecular level. It is hands-on exposure to biochemistry, gene therapy, molecular biology, and physiology.
All of these projects are part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, which places students with faculty in conducting research and scholarship.
At Michigan, we are extremely proud of UROP, because of the highly successful model it provides for showing students the power and promise of research. We are especially proud of the fact UROP engages Hispanics, Native Americans, and African Americans in research, creating an academic community that is supportive, thriving, and, most important, reflective of our future as a country.
We know the benefits of undergraduate research. If you yourself have been involved in lab work as a high school student or college undergraduate, you also know the benefits of research.
It results in better study habits and stronger relationships with faculty. It helps students become proactive and really shape the direction of their studies. And it is the determining factor in the decision to attend graduate school and pursue careers in science.
And we are a country desperate for more scientists and engineers — scientists and engineers who reflect the growing diversity of our nation. America is simply not producing enough graduates right now to replace the scientists and engineers that will retire by the end of this decade.
This conference is all about science for America’s future, and that future must be filled with doctors, engineers, scientists, and faculty who look like America.
The University of Michigan has become the face of diversity in higher education because of our successful U.S. Supreme Court fight to defend affirmative action and the use of race in admissions. It is a role we welcome and continually seek to improve.
Yet for all that we are doing to develop graduates who are equipped to succeed in a multicultural world, we are under attack, and that is something that should concern everyone in this room.
Let me paint the current picture for you and explain why I am so worried, and in fact angry, about the current climate we are operating in as we work to produce graduates prepared for a diverse world.
We know that affirmative action works, and the Supreme Court provided us with moderate guidelines that we are following.
We know that creating a diverse student body makes for a stronger educational experience for every student. We have an impressive and growing body of social science research that demonstrates the positive educational outcomes linked with diverse classroom 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 often mirrors real-world issues. These students are more open to perspectives that differ from their own, and they are better prepared to become active players in our society.
Most people recognize the value of having students of different races and ethnic origins live and learn together. I wish we lived in a society free of social inequities, with fully integrated neighborhoods, churches and schools. I know how hard SACNAS works to correct these structural imbalances in education, and you are to be commended for your many contributions. But we all know there is so much more to do before we can say we have succeeded.
Affirmative action is one — just one — of the many different tools we can use to help make a difference in society. We defended its use all the way to the high court because we believe it helps us achieve a rich student body that mirrors society, and a majority of justices agreed with us.
What disturbs me is that we — and by we, I mean higher education, because that is who Michigan represents — we are acting as if we did not prevail before the highest court in the land! We are on fair legal ground yet we are running scared, and that is a senseless, dangerous mode of behavior that threatens the progress we have made on our campuses.
Colleges and universities across the country are succumbing to a chilling effect that is paralyzing scholarships, admissions, and programs for underrepresented students, for fear of being challenged in court.
We must pay attention to race. We must pay attention to ethnicity. We must pay attention to socioeconomic class. If we look away, the future is bleak, and one need only visit the state of California to see what happens when we go down a road that ignores these factors.
This past spring, Dr. Richard Atkinson, the president emeritus of the great University of California system, came to Ann Arbor to tell us about diversity and affirmative action in his state. Dick was president in 1995 when the UC Board of Regents voted to ban affirmative action in admissions, an action that was followed by a statewide referendum that applied that same ban to all public bodies in California. Out went any consideration of race, gender, ethnicity and the like in public employment.
At the same time they banned affirmative action, the UC Board of Regents also directed UC administrators to achieve a diverse student body. Dick will tell you that affirmative action had been a critical tool to UC, and without it, administrators found themselves challenged to admit underrepresented minority students, particularly at UC-Berkeley, their most selective campus.
Many, many steps were taken to recast the methods UC used to admit underrepresented students. Faculty and administrators strengthened their outreach to high schools. They put more emphasis on achievement tests, rather than aptitude tests such as the SAT. They intensified reviews of admissions applications, and asked students to share more about the obstacles they faced in preparing for college. UC opened the doors to the top-performing 4 percent of students from all California high schools, and took in more transfer students from California community colleges.
It has been a massive, lengthy undertaking by thoughtful leaders like Dick Atkinson, and you know what?
It hasn’t worked. It simply hasn’t worked.
The state of California — a state that is the most diverse in this country and which represents the fifth-largest economy in the world — is educating fewer and fewer underrepresented minority students, at a time when its citizenry is growing more and more diverse.
Here are the numbers: In 1995, before the ban on affirmative action, underrepresented minorities made up 38 percent of California high school graduates and 21 percent of UC’s entering freshman class. Last fall, underrepresented minority students represented 45 percent of high school graduates, but had fallen to just 19 percent of incoming freshmen. And the statistics are even more grim at the most selective campuses of Berkeley and UCLA.
The gap is widening, ladies and gentlemen, not closing, and it is particularly troubling when you consider that Latinos and African Americans make up more and more of the public high school graduates in California.
Here is one more sobering figure that Dick Atkinson provided. Of that incoming freshman class at UC-Berkeley and UCLA — schools that, like Michigan, are highly selective — a combined total of 83 African American men were enrolled. Eighty-three black men starting college at two of our country’s leading universities. And half of them were recruited on athletic scholarships.
That number alone should make every leader in this country stand up and demand change.
If our public universities — particularly selective schools like Michigan, Berkeley and North Carolina, schools known for preparing tomorrow’s doctors, scientists and policymakers — if these universities do not produce graduates of all backgrounds, our nation will stumble as a global leader.
America’s system of higher education is the envy of the world. In fact, the excellence and the breadth of higher education is one of our greatest competitive advantages in a global marketplace. Our country relies on our graduates to power our economic engine.
Students who learn in diverse classrooms know how to take that cross-cultural understanding into America’s businesses and industries. Corporations, government agencies, and non-profit organizations have a vested interest in our ability to attract and retain a highly qualified, and richly diverse, student body — students who will become leaders in our global economy.
I learned an important lesson on the steps of the Supreme Court: The power of our voice matters. Our persistence, and our unwillingness to accept anything less than broad diversity on our campuses, send a strong message in this country.
If we are leaving behind talented Latino students, talented black students, and talented Native American students, we are abandoning this country’s future, and I will not allow the University of Michigan to be party to that.
We simply have too much work to do to move forward.
Our greatest challenge at Michigan is a statewide ballot initiative in 2006 to end affirmative action in our state. It is grossly misnamed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, and I believe the political debate surrounding it will divide our communities, when our efforts should be focused on constructive ways to build broad diversity within the moderate guidelines outlined by the Supreme Court.
I feel strongly about working hard to educate Michigan citizens about the serious implications of such a ballot decision. For example, here is a potential outcome that surprises many people: This initiative, if approved by voters, would prohibit our highly successful efforts to recruit women faculty in science and engineering — just at a time when our country needs all the talented science professionals we can get!
I want to share the hard lessons of California, where the goal of a diverse student body is slipping into oblivion. I want people to hear Dick Atkinson when he says:
“Any state tempted to emulate the example of California should think long and hard about it.”
I urge you to share your success stories about diversity and the many ways that people of all backgrounds make our society stronger. Your experiences matter, and they can make a difference.
Because I guarantee you, regardless of whether this flawed initiative passes or fails in Michigan, its organizers will move on to another state, perhaps your state, and we cannot allow the scenario unfolding in California to be repeated elsewhere.
A second challenge we must meet is to expand our financial aid support to help attract more students of different backgrounds to college.
In particular, we must find ways to support our neediest students if we hope to achieve true economic diversity on our campuses. We cannot afford to leave these talented young people behind, and data show us that qualified students from low-income families are sometimes turned away because the barrier is just too steep.
Last year, the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC issued a study looking at perceptions of financial aid within the Latino community. Forty-three percent of all Latino young adults, and about half of Latino parents, reported that they were not aware of even a single source of college financial aid.
We must make aid available, and we must let students and their families know that college is affordable.
At Michigan, we have always guaranteed our in-state students that if they qualify to attend our university, we will not turn them away because of an inability to pay. We are deepening that commitment by increasing our financial aid to them and reducing the amount of debt they take on.
We call this M-PACT, and this fall is our first year for the program. I’m pleased that, so far, we have awarded grants to 2,239 students. Despite the fact we increased our tuition this fall, and because of M-PACT, this year’s incoming Michigan freshmen with the lowest family incomes are paying less than their peers did a year ago.
And we are making M-PACT a priority with our donors by launching a major initiative to raise at least 60 million dollars to endow the program, so that we can extend it to out-of-state students.
A third challenge we face, and one that SACNAS is doing so much to address, is to boldly increase the number of students, particularly underrepresented students, who are pursuing careers in math, science, and engineering.
Our country’s stature as a global leader has been built upon our strength in science and innovation, and we simply must do more to encourage and support talented young people like the ones in this room.
That’s why at Michigan we have programs like UROP. And it’s why we have learning communities in our dorms, where students who love science and medicine can live together and share their passion. We don’t believe you should have to wait until your junior or senior year to get a real taste of research. We know our freshmen and sophomores have what it takes to do research, and we want to help them excel.
The need for more scientists is why we are working with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to create more opportunities on our campus for Native Americans who want to pursue careers in computing. We’re still waiting to hear from the National Science Foundation, but we hope to host these students for a summer of research experiences.
And it’s why the University of Michigan has created the En Espanol portal, a Spanish-language website with information about undergraduate and graduate admissions, academics, housing, and financial aid. We launched it a year ago, and it has been tremendously popular in reaching Latino parents and extended family members, who we know are often very involved in their student’s decision to go to college.
Beginning this month, we are creating a Spanish-language news service to share the knowledge and resources of our university with Latino media. We believe this is an important network for conveying to readers the excitement and vast resources that students can enjoy at a great research university.
And while we will not have our final fall enrollment numbers for a few more weeks, paid enrollments deposits from this year’s entering freshmen indicated a 15.3 percent increase from last year in Hispanic students, which would see us welcoming one of the largest entering classes of Hispanics in University of Michigan history.
I began this afternoon by telling you about the exciting research projects we offer to Michigan freshmen and sophomores, particularly students of color who want to explore the fascinating worlds of science and engineering. It is but one of the many ways we are working to build a diverse community of talent.
We cannot do this alone.
In ruling in the University’s favor, the Supreme Court said, “The path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity.”
Please remain by our side, remain vigilant and vocal, and together we will continue to forge that path for generations to come.