Saginaw NAACP 36th Annual Freedom Fund Banquet
Sep. 24, 2006
It is an honor to be with you this evening and to be introduced by such a distinguished member of the Saginaw community.
Before Terry Clark was a lawyer and a judge, he was a freshman at the University of Michigan. The year was 1973 – an important date for the university, because our Board of Regents had set a goal of enrolling a student body that was 10 percent African-American by that time.
That 10 percent goal grew out of a 1970 protest at Michigan known as the Black Action Movement, or BAM. BAM was organized by students who called for a student strike to force the point that they wanted to see more black faces on our campus. Our African-American enrollment at the time was 3 percent, and a target of 10 percent seemed possible. The goal was endorsed by more than just our regents – it was favored by the faculty leadership and by the governor of the state, William Milliken.
As an aside, Vice President Spiro Agnew really hated what Michigan was doing – he accused the leadership of the University of “a callow retreat from reality.”
But the reality was there, not so much in black and white but just in white. So university the president and the regents took a stand and said, “This is important to us and we will do our best to improve our campus environment.”
The year 1970 is also important because it marked the first NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet here in Saginaw.
As a great public university and a civic organization that promotes positive change, our respective institutions should take great pride in our accomplishments. But our sense of achievement cannot last too long, because we still have tremendous challenges before us, as a university and a society.
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 the NAACP works to correct these structural imbalances, 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 – 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.
In 1995, the University of California Board of Regents banned the use of 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. 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, 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. A decade later, 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 African-Americans and Latinos make up more and more of the public high school graduates in California.
Here is one more sobering figure. Of this year’s incoming class at UCLA – a school that, like Michigan, is highly selective – a total of 96 African-Americans are enrolled. Ninety-six black students – two percent of the freshmen class – starting college at one of our country’s leading research universities.
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.
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, sends a strong message in this country.
Reverend King told us: “The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.”
Today’s truth is that if we leave behind talented black students, talented Latino students and talented Native American students, we abandon 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 the University is the statewide ballot initiative to end affirmative action in Michigan. It is grossly misnamed the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, and I believe the political debate surrounding it is dividing 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 am 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 the words of Richard Atkinson, the respected former chancellor of the University of California system, 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, 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.
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.
Last fall we launched a program called M-PACT, which expanded financial aid to our neediest of undergraduates from Michigan. More than 3,100 students received M-PACT support, with the average award of $1,000 added to their financial aid packages.
This year, we are increasing the grants to $5,000 each for the lowest-income students, all but eliminating any loans in their financial aid packages. Studies tell us that the prospect of graduating with debt is an invisible but very real barrier that keeps low-income students from achieving in college. I want our students to be thinking about political science, art history and molecular biology – not about the loans that await them after graduation. The M-PACT program helps to erase that anxiety.
Financial aid is not limited to low-income students. Our latest figures show that four of every five students from Michigan are receiving financial aid – either need-based support, merit scholarships, loans or work-study jobs.
When we must make the difficult decision to raise tuition, a move that we know has an immediate impact on our students and their parents, we always – always – increase our financial aid to offset these costs.
A third challenge we face is to continue to widen the doors to the University.
We are always looking to expand our outreach to prospective students. Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting dozens of Saginaw students who gathered at Bethel A.M.E. Church. I understand Rev. David Saunders is here this evening and I want to thank him again for his hospitality.
Last week I was in Lansing talking with students and their families, and later this week I will be in Flint. Tomorrow I’ll be meeting with some 400 high school principals from around the state to tell them we want their graduates at Michigan.
We want exceptional students from not only high schools, but also community colleges. This year we are launching a program to encourage more students at Michigan community colleges to transfer to U-M.
We have a fantastic network of community colleges in our state, and at U-M we want to attract those high-achieving students who want to continue toward their bachelor’s degrees. Working with 31 different community and tribal colleges, we want to quadruple the number of transfer students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds.
Another way we are broadening access to the University is by breaking down language barriers and connecting better with Latino Americans. A year ago, we launched En Espanol, our Spanish-language website, and it has been a fantastic success with students, parents and the media.
For Latino students who are the first in their family to attend college, providing admissions materials in Spanish is immensely helpful to their parents and grandparents in understanding what the U-M can offer. And by sharing Spanish-language news releases with Latino publications in Michigan and beyond, we are letting families know all that is possible at U-M.
Educational quality and access are important to parents throughout Michigan. We just need to look at Kalamazoo, a community that has made a profound statement about the value of education with the Kalamazoo Promise. What a tremendous program! Generous, anonymous donors have guaranteed college tuition to all students who graduate from the Kalamazoo Public Schools. Enrollment is up, more families are moving into Kalamazoo, and the community is being transformed for the better.
I began this evening by telling you about the BAM movement. The University did not achieve its goal of 10 percent African-American students when Terry Clark enrolled in 1973. We did, however, make gains over the years in increasing the number of black students on campus, as well as the enrollment of Latino and Native American students.
Our work continues. As president, I am committed to seeing that we remain diligent about changing the face of our campus so that it looks like the world around us.
We cannot do this alone. Your organization plays a vital role in advocating social justice and speaking for those whose voices too often are not heard. You stood with the University of Michigan in our legal fight for affirmative action, and we will always value that partnership.
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.