The University Record, April 15, 2002

Distinguished professor offers defenses for affirmative action

By Laurel Thomas Gnagey

Lempert (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M photo Services)
Citing racial epithets recently written in chalk on the U-M Diag, and quotes from a number of University students opposed to affirmative action, Distinguished University Professor Richard Lempert says “we have a job to do” to change attitudes about the controversial issue.

As the Eric Stein Distinguished University Professor of Law and Sociology, Lempert gave the lecture “Defending Affirmative Action” April 10. His was the second lecture in a new series designed to highlight the work of those who receive the University’s top faculty distinction. Kenneth E. Warner, the Avedis Dona-bedian Distinguished University Professor of Public Health, delivered the inaugural lecture in February.

Lempert, a professor of law and of sociology and faculty associate in the Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center, began his talk by pointing out that large numbers of individuals— liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans alike—oppose efforts to give underrepresented minorities additional consideration in college admissions. Statistics show people not only are against the practice, but many are angry about affirmative action, Lempert noted.

Lempert says there are many misconceptions—ranging from issues of reverse discrimination to the argument that whites no longer should have to pay for the historical poor treatment of Blacks—that lead people to conclude affirmative action should be abolished.

For example, he says, one of the arguments against affirmative action is the belief that all students now “have the same potential for learning, so Blacks can succeed if they work hard.” Grade point averages, therefore, ought to be good indicators of student ability. Not so, says Lempert, who notes that many schools attended by disadvantaged groups do not have the same number of Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which are given extra weight in the admissions process. Further, he says there is no evidence that grade point averages or test scores are predictors of success later in life. What research has been able to establish is that minority students who are given a chance to participate do very well, he says. Even so, “we have to address the large gaps in test scores and grades.”

Lempert says the first step in defending affirmative action is to recognize that “diversity is not a common cultural value in our society.” He says the University “has an interest in exposing students to persons who look different than they do, regardless of viewpoints, backgrounds, etc.,” but society in general does not share this concern.

He says one need only look at history, including very recent events, to find additional support for affirmative action. Racial profiling, newspaper articles about minorities receiving inferior health care even though insured, and the payout of some $54 million dollars by Denny’s restaurants for racist treatment of customers, are recent evidences that discrimination and injustice still exist, he says.

In introducing the lecture, Interim Provost Paul Courant said Lempert “looks at affirmative action from a scientific and practical point of view.” At the end of his presentation, Lempert made it clear that the issue is personal as well. “Growing up in the ’50s with Little Rock, it’s a world I find immoral, intolerable, and I don’t want to go back to it.”

Lempert has been a member of the faculty since 1968. Currently, he directs the University’s Life Sciences, Values and Society Program. He is a senior fellow of the U-M Society of Fellows and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, a visiting fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and has received the Law and Society Association’s Kalven Prize for scholarly achievement.

Lempert’s Distinguished University Professorship is named in honor of Eric Stein, the Hessel E. Yntema Professor Emeritus of Law at the U-M. Stein, a specialist in international and comparative law, retired in 1983. He was present for Lempert’s lecture.