Brown Chapel AME Annual Brotherhood Banquet
Feb. 23, 2007
I want to thank Brown Chapel AME Church for inviting me to be part of this evening’s program.
Brown Chapel has a long, rich history in the Ypsilanti community … my husband, Ken, is with me this evening, and we’re both honored to now be a part of your legacy of outreach and celebration.
Every fall, a spectacular scene unfolds at the University of Michigan.
Thousands of students converge upon the Diag, the physical and spiritual heart of our campus. They move through a gauntlet of booths and tables set up by hundreds of student organizations.
Display upon display beckons students, exposing them to the activities and interests of groups like the Michigan Gospel Chorale … the Persian Students Association … the Black Student Union … and Michigan Entrepreneurs.
Students can seek out the Michigan Ice Carving Team … or the Punjabi Student Organization … or perhaps Hillel or the Hindu Students Council.
And don’t forget the Michigan Squirrel Club.
This is what a U-M education looks like: limitless interaction with students of wide-ranging passions, different faiths, conflicting politics, and infinite interests.
It is an education equally important to the lessons of the classroom and the laboratory.
Today, thousands of high school students in Michigan and throughout the world are learning whether they will be part of the freshman class we welcome in the fall. It is a period marked by the excitement and anxiety that comes with going off to college.
We are experiencing our own share of apprehension on our campus, as we come to terms with Proposal 2, the new statewide ban on affirmative action, and what it means for our admissions and financial aid policies.
The University of Michigan is both a popular and competitive choice for students. Our campus provides unique and outstanding opportunities, and we receive thousands upon thousands of applications from students who want to experience what we call “the Michigan Difference.” In fact, this year we have received a record number of freshmen applications … well over 27,000 students competing for some 5,400 seats.
When we receive these applications, we look at many, many factors. What kind of courses did a student take in high school? Did she take the most challenging curriculum? Has he been involved in community service? Did she play in the orchestra, or write for the yearbook, or serve as president of the French Club?
Our Number One consideration is always a student’s coursework. Always. The U-M is known first and foremost for its academic excellence, and we will never stray from that core value.
An essential factor in our academic excellence is our diversity. Let me repeat that: diversity is essential to academic excellence. When you bring together students of different backgrounds and different experiences, you create an intellectual experience that is unmatched in higher education.
We are dedicated to building a student body that is an exciting and interesting mix of young men and women who each bring something unique to our university. We do not want only students with perfect grade point averages. We want strong grades, of course, but we want something more. We want students who represent and reflect the richness of the world we explore as a university, and we remain fully committed to keeping the doors of opportunity open for all.
And so we look at a student’s family history—we want students who are either the first in their family to go to college or others who are the fourth generation to attend Michigan.
We want students who have grown up in urban areas like Detroit and Ypsilanti or in rural communities like Newberry in the Upper Peninsula.
We want students who are Croatian or Canadian … students who speak six languages or have lived in six countries … students whose parents have struggled to provide for them, or whose parents run America’s corporations.
We want a mosaic of students and we will always work to attain such diversity, affirmative action or not, because it is the right thing to do as a great public university committed to academic excellence.
After Proposal 2 was approved by voters, I addressed our campus about the value and importance of diversity at our university. Thousands of students turned out on the Diag to hear me speak. One young woman came up to me afterwards and was clearly upset about the outcome of the vote. She said she had been crying for 12 straight hours, and hearing me reiterate the University’s commitment was the first thing that had made her feel better.
I share that story to reinforce how important it is that students hear our university say: Diversity matters at Michigan. And the students of Ypsilanti … and Canton … and Manchester … and Willow Run … all of these highly qualified students add to the richness of our university.
Proposal 2 bans some forms of affirmative action. It does not ban the goal of broad diversity, at U-M or any of our other state universities.
We cannot—and will not—allow our university to be deterred by Proposal 2 or any other efforts to stifle diversity. We must redirect our efforts, but the work of building a campus of students and faculty from all backgrounds continues on all fronts.
We remain firmly committed to a welcoming educational environment for students who contribute in so many different ways to the learning experience. We know diversity makes for better learning and it makes for stronger graduates, and right now our region and our state need the best and brightest graduates possible.
At U-M, diversity makes us strong, and it is too critical to our mission … too critical to our excellence … and too critical to our future … to simply abandon.
Let me give you an example of the value of different perspectives.
Kevin Blythe and Reid Benjamin are sophomores at Michigan. Kevin is black and from Southfield. Reid is white and from Cleveland. And they are the backbone of a new fraternity that makes a mission of being inclusive.
If you were in a social fraternity or sorority in college, you know that they are pretty segregated groups. For Pi Lambda Phi, diversity is their common bond.
The young men of Pi Lam will tell you they have the same interests as any other fraternity—intramural sports, weekend parties, and raising money for charity. But where they are different is how they look and how they act. They are not concerned about skin color, or religion, or the neighborhoods they grew up in.
Reid Benjamin says: “We’re just people—black, white, green—just brothers.”
Here is part of the Pi Lam creed:
“That no society of men can flourish unless members of that society are endowed the opportunities and privileges of freedom, and this freedom implies the elimination of prejudice.”
The Pi Lam brothers know the Greek system looks at them a little differently because of their diversity. Reid and Kevin hope that will be their legacy. They hope that in 30 years, people at U-M look back at Pi Lam and say, “Wow, wasn’t that progressive.”
At the University of Michigan, we remain steadfast in our ongoing work of creating a vibrant educational environment—a place that never stops drawing upon the excellence of students, faculty and staff of different backgrounds and experiences.
That ongoing work means expanding our financial aid 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 campus. We cannot afford to leave these talented young people behind, and data show us that qualified students from low-income families sometimes do not aspire to our University because they believe the barrier is just too steep.
We must do a better job of letting students and their families know that college is affordable.
At Michigan, we guarantee our in-state students that if they qualify to attend our university, we will not turn them away because of an inability to pay. In the past few years we have deepened that commitment by increasing grant assistance to the neediest students. The additional grants, which do not need to be repaid, have reduced or eliminated the need for these students to take out loans.
Some 53 years ago, a young man from Brooklyn, New York, came to Michigan with hopes of playing professional baseball. When his dream faded because of an injury, the University helped him finish school by providing him financial aid. He became the first in his family to earn a college degree.
Last week, that alumnus gave $3 million to the University so we can help more students like him who need financial aid. His name is Fred Wilpon, and he is the owner of the New York Mets.
Because need-based financial aid is so critical for our students, I have told our donors that the President’s Office will match their scholarship gifts dollar for dollar. So Fred Wilpon’s $3 million gift has become $6 million in scholarship support.
Since we began this matching gift program in November, more than 1,300 donors have stepped forward and given nearly $7.4 million for need-based scholarships. That translates into nearly $15 million in new support for our students.
Studies tell us that the thought of leaving college with debt is an invisible, but very real, barrier that keeps low-income students from achieving in college. I want U-M students to be thinking about political science, art history and molecular biology—not about the loans that await them after graduation. Need-based aid helps erase that fear.
Financial aid is not limited to low-income students. Our latest figures show that four of every five students from Michigan receive financial aid.
Another way the University is working to build upon our vibrant atmosphere is to maintain and expand the pipeline programs we have with area high schools and community colleges.
I’m pleased to announce we are putting the finishing touches on an exciting new partnership with the Ypsilanti Public Schools that will expose students to the many opportunities that await them in the worlds of engineering, science and technology.
As a scientist and a university president, I am deeply concerned about our nation’s need for more engineers and scientists. The U-M, and research universities across the country, absolutely must 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 Ypsilanti’s schools.
Let me give you a sneak preview of some of the work we will be doing in conjunction with Ypsilanti teachers and administrators. This partnership came about because of Superintendent James Hawkins, who embraced an inquiry from our College of Engineering to get involved with Ypsilanti students.
I’m going to brag for a moment about our engineering program. Our alumni include the creator of Photoshop, the co-founder of Google, and the creator of the iPod. Our student chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers has been named the best in the country, and for a number of years those students have been mentoring students at Ypsilanti High.
We’re going to expand that. When the College of Engineering asked Ypsilanti teachers how we could help, the answer came back loud and clear: mentors and tutors for our students.
And so U-M graduate students in Engineering are going to work with both students and teachers at Ypsi High, helping them with coursework and lesson plans, working on lab experiments, and coordinating visits to our campus.
Where we currently have about five Michigan engineering students volunteering at the high school, we now have more than 30 who say they want to be part of this partnership. And they represent all disciplines in engineering, from civil and chemical to nanotechnology and biomedical engineering.
We’re also going to work with parents, because the more engaged they are in the educational process, the more they will see their children as successful college students. That may mean working with parents to see that they continue their own educations, or helping them understand and explore all that is available on the Internet.
We want to send a very loud message that a college education should be in the future for every student. I can think of nothing more discouraging than having the bright young people of Ypsilanti, Willow Run and Ann Arbor turn their backs on the exceptional educational opportunities available in their own backyard. That would be a loss for all of us.
An open, tolerant society does not occur without institutions that lead. Our university is known as a national leader for diversity in higher education, and we will not shirk from that role.
I am ready to move forward, and I ask you to join me.
Please stand with us at U-M. Help us carry a message to the students of your communities and your schools.
The message is simple: We want your students.
We want your students to aspire to attend U-M.
We want your students to apply to U-M. Each and every student will be evaluated fairly, and we will consider all the talents and experiences that student brings to our campus.
And when your students are accepted, we want them to enroll and join our remarkable community.
I pledge to you that our university will work harder than ever to create a student body that reflects the diversity of the world around us and exemplifies the excellence that is equated with a U-M degree.
In the end, I fully expect that the multitude of student groups … the Ice Carving Teams and Squirrel Clubs and Gospel Chorales … those student groups will abound on our campus and will continue to present the rich, distinct mosaic that is the University of Michigan.