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Coleman highlights University admission briefs

“A great deal hangs in the balance right here, right now,” President Mary Sue Coleman said as she detailed the University’s brief filed the week of February 17 with the Supreme Court.

Coleman (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

The crux of the University’s position on affirmative action, Coleman said, is the compelling interest diversity has in enriching the lives of all students. As it has argued in lower courts, U-M will make the case for race-conscious admissions by citing research that shows students learn better when there is diversity in the classroom.

“They are more analytical, and more engaged,” Coleman said during an appearance via satellite before the American Council on Education (ACE) Feb. 17. “The teaching environment is more enlightening. The discussion is livelier and more representative of real-world issues. These students are more open to perspectives that are different from their own, and they are better prepared to become active participants in our society.”

While much of the University’s brief focuses on the benefits of diversity, Coleman said it also contains some language intended to address misconceptions created, in part, by President George W. Bush’s characterization of the University’s policies as quotas. Coleman said the University’s admissions policies are in keeping the Bakke case (1978), which does not allow for quotas or set asides.

“Each student is considered individually, and every applicant’s qualifications are weighed fairly and competitively,” Coleman said. Race is one of many factors considered in admissions, she said.

“Our policies are moderate, fair and carefully considered, and designed to achieve the diversity we feel is critical without jeopardizing our high academic standards or creating disadvantage for other important factors.”

Coleman went on to explain why other types of programs do not work. In particular, she criticized percent plans used in California, Texas and Florida, which cull the top students from each high school to be guaranteed admission. Such plans, she said, rely on segregation within schools.

“We dare not—we must not—create public policy that works only if our country’s school systems remain segregated,” she said.

Further, Coleman cited two recent Harvard studies that showed percentage plans do little to improve the numbers of minority students at the more highly selective institutions in those states that have them.

Coleman concluded her remarks by pointing to another institution that has used affirmative action to diversify—the United States military. She cited tensions in the military during the Vietnam era when the majority of officers were white and the enlisted ranks were diverse.

“It fueled a breakdown of order that was dangerous, destructive, and that endangered the military’s ability to do its job,” she said.

Today, minorities make up 40 percent of the enlisted ranks and 19 percent of officers. “We have made great strides, but the branches are still concerned about the gap in representation between enlisted ranks and officers,” Coleman said. “The Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Marines rely on the ability to take race into account in our ROTC programs and at their highly selective service academies.”

“This case is not about college admissions policies alone. Nor is it simply about important matters of constitutional law. It touches every major sector of our country, and the outcome will influence the direction of America’s public policy,” Coleman said.

“We simply cannot handcuff our country’s major institutions in their efforts to seek both quality and diversity. We are asking the United States Supreme Court not to turn back the clock, because our country depends on the education and the integration that we worked so hard as a nation to achieve and that in many ways defines our greatness as a society.”

Related story: Friends of U-M make strong showing with Supreme Court>


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